Why Israeli-Palestinian conflicts over land turn epic

The importance of place to Jewish and Muslim identity intensifies Israeli-Palestinian conflicts over land, as illustrated by the disputed construction of a museum affiliated with the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Jerusalem's Mamilla cemetery.

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    In Jerusalem’s Mamilla cemetery, Rawan Dajani stands before a mausoleum where her ancestor Sheikh Ahmed Dajani was buried nearly 450 years ago.
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Standing outside a mausoleum in Jerusalem's Mamilla cemetery, Rawan Dajani bows her head and cups her hands upward in prayer for her ancestor Sheikh Ahmed Dajani. He was buried in Mamilla, the oldest Muslim burial ground in Jerusalem, nearly half a millennium ago.

About 200 meters away, a fenced-off construction zone marks the future site of the Center for Human Dignity – Museum of Tolerance, a project overseen by the California-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.

In Israel, starting a new project inevitably means bumping into history. In this case, the construction that started in 2004 has stirred Muslim anger as it displaces hundreds of Muslim graves dating as far back as the 7th century, including the remains of soldiers and officials of the Muslim ruler Saladin.

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Wiesenthal officials say they have followed every recommendation of the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is in charge of "salvage excavations," and point out that Muslim authorities in the 1920s had approved building on the plot.

The Mamilla controversy is not unique in Israel, where it's common for different religions' sacred spaces to overlap. Two of the holiest sites in Islam – Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock – sit atop the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, where the Torah proclaims the Holy Temple will be rebuilt.

But these controversies are more than debates over landownership; they are debates over the ownership of memories, a place in human history.

In Israel especially, place is connected to identity, making it a priority to protect the places that offer a sense of belonging. Any effort to remove evidence of historical ties is seen as an attack on identity. Just last week, Israeli authorities destroyed at least 15 tombstones in the Mamilla cemetery which it said were illegally built.

"There is a tendency in both communities to deny the spirituality or the sanctity or the history of the other on a certain spot," says Marc Gopin, a rabbi and the director of George Mason University's Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution.

Why place plays such a key role in identity

Such tactics are common. This past March, a right-wing Israeli group sponsored ads on 200 buses that displayed fictitious posters of the Temple Mount, in which a Third Temple replaced the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

In 2000 Israeli leader Ariel Sharon set off the second intifada by visiting the Temple Mount and asserting permanent Israeli sovereignty over the compound. The violence lasted four years and claimed the lives of more than 5,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis.

But even lesser-known holy sites become part of the conflict if a community feels its presence being threatened.

Recently, the Israeli government named as heritage sites Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which both Judaism and Islam claim as Abraham's burial place. By claiming sites in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, Israel further blurred the lines of the ownership of land – and history.

How Muslims are protesting Mamilla project

In the case of the Wiesenthal project, protesters claim the museum's construction is an effort to conquer what Muslims consider religious territory. It has provoked petitions from Palestinian descendants of the buried, including Ms. Dajani.

"I feel like I have lots of energy to do something" about the construction, says Dajani, whose family's name is prominent among Palestinians. "But at the end I understand that this is very difficult. The Israelis will not let us do anything easily."

With construction set to continue, activists are focused on a still untouched part of the cemetery. According to Diyala Husseini Dajani, a protester with family ties to Mamilla – but no relation to Rawan – nearly $18,000 was raised to support a memorial wall that will display the names of everyone buried in the cemetery.

Mr. Gopin says such gestures are effective peacekeeping tactics.

"The only thing that is left to be done at this point is to make gestures of apology, offer to build up what's left of the cemetery with security and with the refurbishing of all the stones," says Gopin. "But you can't just make nice gestures. It has to come with a real proof that you believe in a peaceful coexistence."

Israel archaeologist: It's totally politics

Gideon Sulimani, chief archaeologist appointed by the Israel Antiquities Authority to excavate the museum site, doubts there is a genuine desire for coexistence in this case. Mr. Sulimani discovered more than 200 bodies during the dig in 2005.

Despite his recommendation that the site not be released for construction, the antiquities authorities informed the Supreme Court to clear the area for construction.

"It's part of the conflict about who owns the land," Sulimani said. "It's not archaeology. It's not science. They want to move away the Muslim memory of the area to make it Jewish. So it's totally politics."

Some Palestinians involved are hopeful that even if the new museum rises, their protest efforts will bring some acknowledgment to the Muslim burial ground that once stood on the site.

"It's not that I'm concerned about the graves as much as I'm concerned about the fact that we don't exist to the Israelis," Ms. Husseini Dajani said.

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(Editor's note: This article was amended after publication. Judaism and Islam claim the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron is Abraham's burial place, not his birthplace.)

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