The discovery of a rare aerial photo of Jerusalem in the 1930s, taken by a Zeppelin, has provided the long-sought after proof that when Israel occupied the Old City in 1967 it secretly destroyed an important mosque that dated from the time of Saladin close to the al-Aqsa mosque.
The destruction of the Sheikh Eid mosque – in an area widely considered to be the most sensitive site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – revives questions about Israel’s continuing abuse of Islamic holy places under its control.
The issue has been in the spotlight recently because of a growing number of arson and vandalism attacks by Jewish extremists on mosques in Jerusalem and the West Bank, in what are termed “price-tag” attacks designed to dissuade the Israeli government from making diplomatic concessions to the Palestinians.
Following the torching by Jewish settlers of a mosque near Ramallah two weeks ago, Dan Halutz, a former military chief of staff, admitted there was no political will to find the culprits. "If we wanted, we could catch them, and when we want to, we will," he told Army Radio.
The question of whether Jerusalem’s Sheikh Eid mosque had survived up until modern times had been the subject of heated debates between Palestinian and Israeli scholars.
The discovery of its location is not of only historic and academic interest. Earlier this year, before the aerial photo was unearthed, development at the spot where the mosque once stood led to damage of what was left of the building below ground, archaeologists now admit.
Israel’s Antiquities Authority, its chief archaeological institution, dug up the mosque’s remaining foundations and disinterred a human skeleton, believed to be Sheikh Eid himself.
The site of the mosque is next to the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), a raised compound of Islamic holy places that includes the al-Aqsa mosque and is flanked on one side by the Western Wall, a major Jewish prayer site.
Control over the Haram al-Sharif is contested by Israel, which believes that the mosques are built over two Jewish temples destroyed long ago. There is growing pressure from Jewish religious groups to be allowed to pray on the Haram al-Sharif, and some extremists have threatened to blow up the mosques so that they can build a third temple.
A provocative visit in 2000 to the site by Ariel Sharon, then leader of Israel’s opposition, backed by more than 1,000 police triggered the second intifada.
The remains of Sheikh Eid mosque were destroyed during excavations carried out as Israel prepares the area next to the Haram al-Sharif for the construction of a large visitor centre.
The plan is part of a series of changes by Israel to the area near the Western Wall that has been fuelling tensions with Palestinians. The alterations violate international law because Jerusalem’s Old City is occupied territory.
Benjamin Kedar, vice-president of Israel’s National Academy of Sciences, who discovered the old photo after searching archives in Germany, called the treatment of Sheikh Eid mosque “an archaeological crime.”
The mosque, which originally served as an Islamic school, built by Malik al-Afdil, one of Saladin’s sons, is said to have been one of only three such buildings remaining in Jerusalem from that period.
Its provenance and location are described in a 15th-century document. After the burial of its most famous preacher, Sheikh Eid, two centuries later, it became a major pilgrimage site for Muslims.
The mosque, it now emerges, was destroyed during the wholesale levelling of the Mughrabi quarter of the Old City – a war crime that has been largely overlooked by historians – in the immediate wake of Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967.
Under cover of dark, Israel sent in bulldozers to clear the area, forcing nearly 1,000 Palestinian residents out so that a wide prayer plaza could be created in front of the Western Wall.
The plaza became the nucleus for the re-establishment of an enlarged Jewish quarter in the Old City, which is gradually encroaching on the Muslim and Christian quarters through the activities of settlers and armed guards assigned by the Israeli authorities to protect them.
The visitor center is the latest plan in a long-running campaign by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, who is in charge of the Western Wall, to strengthen Israel’s hold on the area around the Haram al-Sharif, in what is seen by many Palestinians as an attempt to bolster Israeli claims to sovereignty over the compound of mosques.
The rabbi’s Western Wall Heritage Foundation oversees the Western Wall tunnels, which were opened in 1996 during current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous premiership. The opening sparked violent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces that led to dozens of deaths.
The Heritage Foundation is also attempting to relocate the Mughrabi bridge, a ramp now used chiefly by non-Muslims and Israeli police to reach the al-Aqsa compound, to further expand the prayer plaza in front of the Western Wall.
The visitor centre, which would be built close to the Mughrabi bridge, has aroused opposition from a group of dissident Israeli archaeologists. Yoram Tzafrir a professor at Hebrew University, recently told the Haaretz newspaper: “It might be said that the demolition of the Mughrabi quarter in 1967 was necessary ... to allow masses to reach the Western Wall – not to build a new [visitor] building.”
The Heritage Foundation has justified its activities by saying that excavations destroying Islamic history are necessary to unearth older, Jewish archaeological remains. In a statement referring to the Sheikh Eid controversy, it said: “Excavations in the area of the Western Wall are intended to reach the earliest levels possible. Clearly this cannot be done without destroying later periods, whatever they may be.”
The historic and current abuses of the Sheikh Eid mosque are reflected in Israel’s repeated dismal scores in international surveys on religious freedom.
In 2010 the US State Department published a report placing Israel in the same category as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sudan. “Non-Jewish holy sites do not enjoy legal protection under [Israel’s 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law] because the government does not recognize them as official holy sites,” the report stated.
The 1967 law stipulates a punishment of seven years' imprisonment for anyone found guilty of desecrating a holy site, and five years for impeding access to a holy site. But Israel has given such status only to Jewish places of worship.
The State Department’s findings were confirmed last year in a freedom of religion index organized by US academics at Binghamton University, who awarded Israel a zero score.
The treatment of Sheikh Eid mosque has echoes of a current and more prominent dispute close by, in West Jerusalem, where Israel has approved a plan by the California-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre to build a Museum of Tolerance over the ancient Muslim cemetery of Mamilla, which includes graves believed to be those of the Prophet Mohammad’s companions.
Israeli media reported in 2008 that more than 100 skeletons had been unearthed and mistreated in excavations to prepare the site for construction work. The building of the museum has been delayed by financial problems caused by the global economic downturn.
While these high-profile cases have made headlines, violations of religious freedoms for the 1.3 million Palestinian Muslims living under occupation, who have citizenship, have gained far less attention.
The core grievance dates to Israel’s creation in 1948, when all land and property held in trust for the Muslim community was confiscated inside the borders of the newly established Jewish state. These properties – donated by generations of Palestinians to a waqf, or religious endowment – comprised not only holy sites and cemeteries but also schools, public buildings, shops and farmland.
After 1948, all of the waqf’s holdings, which constituted a tenth of the territory of the Holy Land, were seized by the state and, along with property belonging to more than 750,000 Palestinian refugees, passed to an official known as the Custodian of Absentee Property.
Only the mosques in the 120 Palestinian towns and villages that survived Israel’s establishment have continued to operate, though under strict supervision. Israel, which pays the salaries of mosque employees, controls all appointments and monitors sermons.
Some 500 other villages, which were emptied of their Palestinian population in 1948, have been razed, often along with any local mosques or churches.
In cities that are now almost exclusively Jewish, such as Tel Aviv, mosques and cemeteries were simply developed over. In one notorious incident, the large Abdul Nabi cemetery was passed to a development company in the 1950s and a five-star hotel and several housing complexes for Jewish immigrants built over it.
Most of the mosques that remained standing in the otherwise-destroyed villages have been desecrated, according to a survey undertaken by the Nazareth-based Human Rights Association in 2004. It found that these mosques, as well as Islamic shrines, had been made inaccessible, including to internal refugees living nearby.
Some had been turned over to Jewish immigrants. For example, Caesarea, a former Palestinian coastal village that was transformed after 1948 into a wealthy Jewish community that is home to Benjamin Netanyahu, converted the Bushnak mosque into a restaurant.
Other prominent mosques in former Palestinian villages have been put to use as bars, night clubs, art galleries, shops, animal pens, grain stores and synagogues.
There is little that can be done to prevent such desecration in most cases because Israel’s 1978 Antiquities Law offers no protection to buildings dating after 1700.
Meanwhile, other, older mosques have been declared closed military zones, leaving them derelict. The beautiful Ghabisiya mosque in northern historical Palestine is fenced off and enveloped in razor-wire, while the Hittin mosque, built by Saladin in 1187 to celebrate his victory at the Battle of Hittin, close to the Sea of Galilee, has become a crumbling ruin, with refugees living close by forbidden to repair it.
Over the past 15 years, the two branches of the Islamic Movement have worked to identify and document the Muslim holy places that were destroyed and those that survived but are today off-limits.
It has also antagonised the Israeli authorities by leading a campaign to restore many of the most important sites. When the Islamic Movement helped a group of internal refugees from the former village of Sarafand, on the Mediterranean coast, restore their mosque in 2000, it was bulldozed overnight in still-unexplained circumstances.
Even rare successes in the Israeli courts have made little impact in practice. Last year the Supreme Court ruled that Beersheba council must use the city’s imposing and recently restored Grand Mosque as a museum to Islamic culture rather than a general museum, as the council had planned.
However, in March the Adalah legal centre for the Arab minority in occupied Palestine, which helped fight the case, complained to the Israeli attorney-general that the council had ignored the ruling and was using the mosque to stage an exhibition on British and Israeli rule in the Negev. It also noted that the council had staged a wine and beer festival in the mosque’s grounds last year.
Nuri al-Uqbi, a Bedouin activist who has led a long campaign to try to restore the Grand Mosque to a place of worship, said: “I felt horrified and furious at this violation of the mosque’s sanctity. In the mosque there are plastic dolls and models wearing British and Israeli uniforms, some of them in shorts, among other exhibits that are irrelevant to Arab-Islamic culture or tradition.”
Beersheba council has refused to provide a Muslim place of worship in the city, despite its being home to 1,000 Muslim families and daily drawing many Bedouin visitors from the surrounding Negev.
Other legal efforts related to waqf property have also come to nought. In 2007 Palestinians living in the historic city of Jaffa, now a mixed Jewish-Arab suburb of Tel Aviv, unsuccessfully petitioned the district court to discover what had happened to local waqf property.
The government refused to divulge the information, claiming it “would seriously harm Israel’s foreign relations”. This was presumed to refer to the damage that might be done to Israel’s image abroad should it be revealed to what uses the waqf property had been put.
The case is currently being appealed to the Supreme Court.
However, all the signs are that the court is unlikely to be sympathetic. In 2009, after a five-year legal struggle by Adalah, the Supreme Court rejected a petition demanding that the 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law specifically include protection for Islamic sites.
While agreeing that Muslim holy sites were generally in a “miserable condition”, it said that the matter was too “sensitive” for it to issue a ruling.
Under pressure from the court, however, the Israeli government promised to spend $500,000 on the maintenance of Muslim holy places, a sum that has been widely criticised by the community as “pitiful.” The money will be allocated by the Israel Lands Administration, which according to Adalah lawyers, “has done nothing to prevent the desecration of Muslim holy sites and in many instances played an active role in their desecration.”
Restrictions on Muslims’ freedom of worship seem likely to intensify in the months and years ahead. Late last year Netanyahu gave his backing to a law that would ban mosques from using loudspeakers to call residents to prayer.
Observing that there had been many complaints about noise, Netanyahu observed: “The same problem exists in all European countries, and they know how to deal with it. It’s legitimate in Belgium; it’s legitimate in France. Why isn’t it legitimate here? We don’t need to be more liberal than Europe.”
Netanyahu had apparently forgotten that he was not in Europe and that the Muslims he was talking about are not immigrants but the native population.