Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Israeli-Palestinian Conflicts over Land Turn Epic

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Israeli-Palestinian Conflicts over Land Turn Epic

Article excerpt

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.

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.

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements

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. …

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