Palestinians fight to save Jerusalem cemetery from being destroyed for Israeli park

Palestinians bury the remains of several graves that were demolished by the Jerusalem municipality at Al-Yusufiyah cemetery in occupied East Jerusalem (Mahfouz Abu Turk)

Yumna Patel

Mondoweiss  /  October 29, 2021

Israeli forces fired tear gas and sound bombs at Palestinians outside the al-Yusufiyah cemetery in occupied East Jerusalem on Friday, the latest escalation at the site, as Palestinians fight to save the cemetery from being destroyed to make way for an Israeli park.

According to local reports, groups of Palestinians gathered outside the cemetery, located right outside the walls of the Old City, to protest the construction of an Israeli park in the area, which threatens the destruction of several Palestinian grave sites. 

Videos from the scene on Friday showed armed Israeli border police officers throwing tear gas and sound bombs at the crowds, while others officers violently detained young Palestinian man, and lifted their batons up in a threatening manner at people who were filming at the scene. 

The attack on the demonstrators occurred after Israeli forces closed off the cemetery with metal sheets and wire fencing, in an effort to prevent a number of families from accessing the cemetery while Israeli bulldozers worked in the area. 

Videos showed Israeli police attempting to forcibly remove the families, who insisted that they remain, and that they be allowed in to visit the graves of their loved ones. 

One video posted on social media showed a group of Palestinian women attempting to force open the gates, but to no avail.

One of the women was Ola Nababteh, who earlier this week was filmed as she clung onto the grave of her son for dear life as Israeli police officers attempted to pry her off the gravestone. 

The video, which went viral on social media, showed a tearful Nababteh as she cried, pleading with the officers, saying “go, leave me here,” as bulldozers razed the earth around her. 

According to Reuters, Arieh King, Jerusalem deputy mayor and a leader of the right-wing settler movement in Jerusalem, said there was “never any intent to move the grave and that police had evacuated Nababteh because she was too close to construction.”

But Nababteh expressed otherwise, telling Middle East Eye that she has been consistently harassed by Israeli authorities over the years while visiting her son’s grave, who told her that she did not receive permission to bury her son there.  

So when human remains were unearthed earlier this month during Israeli construction at the site, she and other Palestinians who have relatives buried in the cemetery feared that their loved ones could be suffering a similar fate soon. 

Israeli authorities claim that the remains that were unearthed belonged to “unauthorized” graves that were “illegally placed” in the cemetery over the years, and that “authorized” graves would not be affected. 

For years Palestinians have been fighting against Israeli plans for parks and nature reserves, which threatened more than one Muslim cemetery in the city.

In 2018, Israeli forces dug up sites inside the Bab al-Rahma cemetery outside the Old City, as part of plans to create a trail for tourists for City of David national park, which runs through the centuries old cemetery, the final resting place to generations of Palestinians and others from the Arab world.

At the time, Mustafa Abu Zahra, Head of the Committee for the Preservation of Islamic Cemeteries in Jerusalem, told Mondoweiss that affronts on Muslim cemeteries in the city had begun as early as the 1970s.

In recent years, any attempts by Palestinians to build new graves in the cemetery were met with force by Israeli authorities, who destroyed the grave sites and restricted Palestinian access to the area. 

“This is a violation of international law, and part of Israel’s ongoing Judaization of Jerusalem. This cemetery represents our culture, our life, our history, and Israel is trying to erase all of this,” he said at the time.

Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher at left-wing Israeli NGO Ir Amim, told Mondoweiss that “national Parks have been hugely misused by Israel in East Jerusalem as a one of the means to severely limit Palestinian residential areas in order to realize the Israeli demographic policy of ensuring a Jewish majority in Jerusalem,” and that the policy creates pressures that “encourage” East Jerusalemites to leave the city.

Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss