Israeli authorities destroyed Wednesday a number of Muslim graves at a historic site in East Jerusalem, sparking outrage among the Palestinian community.
Individuals could be seen smashing graves at the Bab al-Rahmeh ("Gate of Mercy") Cemetery, with heavy equipment as Israeli soldiers looked on in a video posted on social media by the Jerusalem Media Center, a Palestinian non-governmental organization based in East Jerusalem. Those demolishing the site, which is over 1,400 years old and located just east of the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque, were reportedly personnel from the Israeli Nature Authority. A Palestinian official claimed the authorities intended to transform the area into a national park.
“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 Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency. "Israel wants to transform the cemetery into a national park for Israeli Jews," he added.
The Jerusalem Media Center told International Business Times they believe the true reason for the demolition of the site was to make room for a station and parking lot that would accommodate an upcoming cable car installation Israel planned to build around Jerusalem.
The demolition comes during a tense period for Palestinian-Israeli relations. The United Nation's world heritage foundation, Unesco, recently adopted a few controversial resolutions that Israel alleges deny the connection between Judaism and its holiest site, The Temple Mount, known to Muslims as The Noble Sanctuary. The al-Aqsa Mosque is located on this site. Palestinian leaders were quick to make the connection between Israel's outrage at the Unesco vote and the destruction at the cemetery.
Mahmoud al-Habbash, the adviser to the Palestinian Authority on religious affairs and Islamic relations, condemned the act, which he called "a war crime" according to the Palestinian Press Agency. He also blamed "Israeli political confusion" and called on the Arab League and other international organizations including Unesco “to hold Israel responsible for its crimes against Palestinian and Islamic heritage in Jerusalem," according to Ma'an News Agency.
Israeli authorities seized East Jerusalem in 1967 after the Six-Day War. Since then, territorial and property disputes have made the city a flashpoint for conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Israelis have also destroyed "significant portions" of other Islamic cemeteries such as the Mamilla Cemetary, which dates back to the 7th century. Last September, Israeli authorities confiscated part of the Bab Al-Rahmeh cemetery, prompting al-Aqsa Mosque Director Sheik Omar al-Kiswani to state, "not only does the Israeli occupation go after living Muslims, but even the dead are not safe," according to Ma'an News Agency.