Several Muslim graves have been vandalized at a historic cemetery next to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem. Palestinian officials blamed Israeli Nature and Parks Authority, saying the demolition aimed at making space for a natural park.
The alleged Israeli parks authority team entered the Bab al-Rahma cemetery on Tuesday morning accompanied by soldiers and proceeded to demolish the graves.
“Personnel from the so-called ‘Israeli Nature Authority’ – backed by large numbers of Israeli forces – stormed the historical Bab al-Rahmeh cemetery and knocked down eight graves,” Mustafa Abu Zahra, head of the committee for the preservation of Islamic cemeteries in Jerusalem, told the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency.
“Israel wants to transform the cemetery into a national park for Israeli Jews,” he added.
In September, Israel announced plans to seize parts of the cemetery for a national park trail, Ma’an news reported citing local sources.
According to Sheikh Omar al-Qiswani, the Palestinian director of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Israeli authorities claimed the land belonged to the Nature and Parks Authority.
“Israel claims the graves are situated on land owned by the Israeli Nature Authority,” al-Qiswani was quoted by the Anadolu news agency as saying. He added that Israel has “no historical – or legal – basis on which to claim any right to the cemetery,” saying that “the site is an Islamic Waqf [endowment], and will remain so.”
Earlier the official said that “not only does the Israeli occupation go after living Muslims, but even the dead are not safe,” Ma’an reports.
Israeli Nature and Parks Authority did not immediately comment on the incident.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has condemned the incident. In a statement quoted by the outlet, senior advisor for religious affairs Mahmoud al-Habbash denounced the demolitions as “Israeli political confusion,” following a recent UNESCO resolution slamming Israel’s violations at the Al-Aqsa mosque. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the UNESCO ruling, saying the body “denied the over 3,000-year-old connection between the Jewish people and its holiest site in Jerusalem.”
Al-Habbash on its part stressed that Israel must be held responsible “in accordance with international law” for “its crimes against Palestinian and Islamic heritage in Jerusalem.”
The Bab al-Rahma cemetery is an important site in Islam. More than 1,400 years old, it holds the final resting place of several religious figures and leaders. Palestinian activists have been claiming that the Israeli authorities plan to confiscate up to forty percent of the graveyard to use as a park.
Demolition crews had earlier entered the cemetery in July, when again under police protection they tore down three graves, sparking clashes with local Palestinians. Crews also entered the site in October, shortly after the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed a resolution denying a Jewish connection to the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, located on the Temple Mount.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War and formally annexed it in 1980, drawing the condemnation of the UN. Tensions are high over historic sites in Jerusalem which both Muslims and Jews view as a holy city.