Muslim families are suing Israel to bury their dead in a coveted cemetery
JERUSALEM — Just south of the Old City’s monumental Lion’s Gate lies a smaller portal. White double doors framed by Arabic-engraved tablets open to a stone path shaded by a sheet metal awning. Where the overhang ends, the graves begin, hundreds of them overlooking the Mount of Olives, its green slopes dotted with graves of their own.
As the sun sets, light slants against the long, flat gravestones. Farther down the path, red poppies grow between the headstones. Two young men in kufis stand by one of the graves, deep in prayer. At dusk, the living, a few solitary visitors, are as silent as the dead meandering quietly among them.
In the hush of Bab al-Rahma Cemetery, it’s hard to imagine the place as anything but peaceful. For hundreds of years, people of faith have been buried just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, a place sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
But beneath this burial ground, running along the eastern wall of Al Aqsa Mosque or the Temple Mount, lie layers of religious meaning and conflict. For Palestinians, it’s an active Muslim cemetery. For Israel, it’s a protected Jewish antiquities site. Burials here have been a point of contention in Jerusalem for over a decade.
Residents of Silwan, a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood bordering the Old City, traditionally bury their dead in the southernmost part of Bab al-Rahma Cemetery. But for years, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has technically banned burials in the area, citing the need to protect antiquities close to the Temple Mount.
Palestinian families who consider themselves the land’s owners are pursuing a lawsuit against the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the municipality of Jerusalem, with their next hearing this summer. The hope is, if the Husseini and Ansari families can reassert ownership, they can reduce Israeli interference at the cemetery.
“In June, I hope that the court will be open to hearing our arguments and be convinced,” said Sami Harshid, a lawyer who’s been representing families in Silwan for 20 years. “Restricting people and using their burial places is equal [to] restricting any community conducting worship.”
Bab al-Rahma Cemetery has already undergone its share of legal battles. In 1974, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority classified it as a part of Jerusalem Walls National Park, giving the agency authority over the grounds. At the time, the land was registered under the Islamic Waqf. In 2005, the Committee for the Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount – a group of Israeli archeologists and scholars – petitioned the High Court to ban burials in the area, citing the area’s potential archeological significance. According to Haaretz, their statement called burials in the area “archeological crimes, which are unacceptable to any cultured person, irrespective of political stands or ideological positions,” comparing the Temple Mount to the Acropolis in Athens.
The court ultimately rejected the suit but encouraged authorities to protect the site, causing police to restrict new burials in the southern part of the cemetery. In 2012, the area where the burial ban was enforced expanded. Finally, last May, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority completed a fence around the cemetery, a decision met with protest from Palestinians. Silwan residents saw it as another move to restrict Palestinian burials, part of a systemic policy to curtail their rights and erode their cultural landmarks from the landscape of Jerusalem.
“[People] are very frustrated,” Harshid said. “They feel like the authorities ignore not just their feelings but the real need to have burial space there.”
Jerusalem, in general, has a burial space problem. Centuries of funerals for world’s faithful have finally taken their toll. As Jerusalem’s Jewish cemeteries fill, its burial society has resorted to some odd, albeit creative plans: burial complexes with multiple stories, graves carved into rock walls, and even catacombs. Muslims are also suffering from the lack of burial space, and people who live in Silwan specifically want to bury loved ones in Bab al-Rahma, both because of family plots there and because of the religious significance of the area.
When her uncle died, Sahar Abasi’s family buried him in her grandfather’s grave in Bab al-Rahma Cemetery, in accordance with a Muslim tradition to have layered burials. It was emotional laying a son to rest with his father. As her own father grows old, she can’t imagine burying him anywhere else. Abasi, the women project coordinator for the Madaa Silwan Creative Center, describes the Silwan as the “core” of her life. She’s lived in the neighborhood since she was born.
“Everyone has a last wish, and this is the last wish for everyone here – to be buried in Bab al-Rahma,” she said.
To be Palestinian on the outskirts of the Old City is to constantly reassert:
“We exist, we have roots, we have heritage…” Abasi said. Living – and dying – in Silwan isn’t “heaven on earth… Now after their death days, [Palestinians] deserve their rest, what they didn’t have in their lives.”
She thinks Israel is slowly edging out Palestinians from East Jerusalem. The legal wrangling over Bab al-Rahma Cemetery is just a part of it. “[Israel figured], ‘We’ll start with the living, and now we’ll start with the dead people,’” Abasi said.
According to Harshid, Bab al-Rahma Cemetery has a sort of patchwork of regulations now. Small areas of the cemetery complex allow for unrestricted burials, while others don’t allow for new burials at all.
In the Southern part, Silwan residents can apply for court permission, but “Palestinians don’t really trust the Israeli court system,” said Yonathan Mizrachi, an Israeli archeologist in Jerusalem. Even though police can stop burials, he finds that most mourners would rather take their chances.
Mizrachi works with Silwan residents as the executive director of Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO that focuses on the role of archeology in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The organization often advocates for Palestinians impacted by Israeli excavations.
For Mizrachi, the archeological claims aren’t enough to ban burials. This is a case where archeology is a “tool to change the character of the village, to create kind of a new political order in this area,” he said. In Israel, “Every stone becomes relevant and raises a lot of tension.”
Mizrachi understands the desire to preserve Jerusalem as it once was. But this preservationist ideology is applied selectively, he said. No one is arguing Jews should stop performing burials in Jerusalem to protect potential antiquities. The argument against burials isn’t just about artifacts. It’s about the culture of the city.
“What kind of city do we see when we visit Jerusalem?” he asked. “Do we see a multicultural city? Do we see an Arab city? Do we see an Israeli Jewish city? This cemetery reminds us we’re not the only people here.”
Mizrachi is drawn to the conflict around Bab al-Rahma Cemetery in particular because it’s “an interesting case of violating heritage rights in the name of protection for heritage,” he said.
Mizrachi doesn’t reject the idea that Bab al-Rahma cemetery has archeological significance, given its location. But Mizrachi argues that civilizations have been building on top of each other for centuries. Jerusalem is a growing city. People live and people die. Some of them are Muslim.
“We have a history of layers,” he said. “The cemetery is part of it.”