Bulldozers repulsed from the Muslim cemetery in Balad al-Sheikh

Palestinian flag being raised at the demonstration (Nahed Dirbas)

Yoav Haifawi

Mondoweiss  /  February 16, 2022

Last week, heavy machinery arrived to carry out excavation work in the Muslim cemetery in Haifa, but activists who were called to the area managed to reach an understanding with the workers and the contractor, and prevent the attempt to damage the cemetery. The event spurred a protest, and on Friday a demonstration was held at the venue, despite intimidation from Israeli security services.

The story of this recent threat began on Monday, February 7, when the threat to the Muslim cemetery in Balad al-Sheikh in Haifa suddenly became very tangible: some heavy machinery for earthwork arrived at the edge of the cemetery, and their operators began preparations to dig.

In early December 2021, when a protest tent was set up on the outskirts of the cemetery, the situation was not clear. Some of the land was expropriated as early as the 1950s, and even though almost 70 years have passed since then, the cemetery continues to exist on the ground. When I reported here on the struggle for recognition of the cemetery, I cautiously wrote that “new building plans are feared.”

The precautionary steps and the continuous guarding in the cemetery were proven necessary. When the heavy vehicles arrived, the activists who were called to the scene made it clear to the staff that it was a cemetery. The workers, all Arabs, immediately refused to carry out any work on the site. Following them, the Jewish contractor announced that when he was hired to work on the site he was not told that it was a cemetery, and that he did not intend to carry out the work.

As the whole matter was closed with an understanding between the activists and the workers, the police force that was sent to secure the job was left with nothing to do.

The cemetery, founded in the 1930s on an area of 44 dunams, was used not only by Balad al-Sheikh itself, but by the Muslim community in Haifa and the surrounding towns and villages. Many families in the area have family members buried there.

Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, who was the imam of Al-Istiqlal Mosque in Haifa and a key leader of the Palestinian community, and was a prominent leader of the resistance to the British occupation of Palestine and to the Zionist colonization, was also buried in this cemetery in 1935. For this reason, it has since been called the “Al-Qassam Cemetery” (as opposed to the old cemetery of Balad al-Sheikh itself, named after Sheikh Al-Sahli), and has symbolic significance for Palestinian heritage as a whole.

The cemetery in Balad a-Sheikh has been the subject of expropriation, corrupt deals by state officials, and legal and public struggles for decades since the 1950s.

In recent years, the court in the Krayot (suburbs North of Haifa) has heard a lawsuit by a company named “Kirur Ahzakot”, which claims ownership of a large part of the expropriated area, against the trustees of Waqf al-Istiqlal. At the end of the hearing, the court rejected the company’s claim to oblige the trustees to vacate the graves. It ruled that if the company wanted to vacate graves, it must first submit construction plans, and if the construction plans required it – submit a request to vacate the graves to the appropriate authority in the Ministry of Health.

Meanwhile, the company is trying to “shorten proceedings” and establish facts on the ground, hiding behind contractors and developers. The police, instead of preventing their actions, unsurprisingly focus their attention on those trying to guard the cemetery.

The attempted attack on the cemetery was broadcast almost real time on Arab media, and provoked widespread reactions on social media. The Hebrew press, as usual, ignored the incident. On the evening of the day of the attack, in the protest tent, there was a gathering of the Waqf al-Istiqlal trustees, representatives of the families of the buried and the tent committee, along with representatives of protest groups and young people from the Arab neighborhoods of Haifa. They decided to hold a protest demonstration on Friday at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

Prior to the demonstration, several organizers and activists received calls from people who introduced themselves as police or Shabak (GSS) personnel, who tried to dissuade them from demonstrating. I myself was astonished to receive a call from a person who introduced himself as “Amichai from the Shabak”, and tried to persuade me to “use my influence” to “prevent violence” in the demonstration.

Despite the threats, many dozens of activists came to the demonstration on Friday. Police, reinforced by special forces, surrounded the area and blocked some traffic at the intersection ahead of time. Even before the demonstration began, the police demanded that Palestinian flags will not be hoisted near the main road.

Several young women carrying flags were stopped by police near the police checkpoint, while the rest of the protesters lined up along the main road, across a bridge that was built over the cemetery. Finally, a large Palestinian flag also appeared in the center of the demonstration. The press later stated that this was probably the first time that a Palestinian flag had been hoisted in the town of “Nesher” (as the area is now called) since the original residents of Balad al-Sheikh were expelled in 1948.

The demonstrators carried signs in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, calling for the cemetery to be respected and not to be damaged. Some of the signs directly blamed the companies involved, “Kirur Ahzakot” and “Gold Line”, along with the Israeli establishment, for harming the cemetery, and called for a boycott of their products.

Some of the calls in the demonstration also referred to the attack on cemeteries as one of the hallmarks of the apartheid state. Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, the leader of the Islamic Movement, who was recently released from a lengthy prison sentence, also joined the demonstration and was enthusiastically received by the protesters.

On the other side of the road, a small counter-demonstration took place, accompanied by photos of ultra-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir and a large poster calling to join his organization, “Jewish Power.”

Meanwhile, the damage to the cemetery was prevented, and the attempt to damage it only provoked and reinforced the call to stop all demolition plans and the demand for recognition of the cemetery and the return of its entire land to the ownership of the Waqf. At the same time, fears intensified of another attempt to mount bulldozers in the cemetery, which might be backed up by the use of massive force, as the police regularly do in forcing demolitions against the Arab Palestinian population.

At the end of the demonstration, activists gathered in a tent to discuss ways to expand the struggle.

Yoav Haifawi is an anti-Zionist activist and maintains the blogs Free Haifa and Free Haifa Extra