Press Release: The ICJP Demands the Israeli Government Halts the Destruction of Al-Shuhada’ Cemetery in East Jerusalem

On 24 February 2022, the Sub-Committee for Objections, a sub-committee of the Israeli Higher Planning Council, approved a plan that would lead to the confiscation and complete destruction of Al-Shuhada’ Cemetery in East Jerusalem, which has existed since 1963. The Sub Committee’s decision is issued amidst ongoing legal proceedings before Israel’s Magistrates’ Court by the Palestinian owners and guardians of the Cemetery to protect this important cultural site. 


Al-Shuhada’ Cemetery is considered the Northern continuation and an integral part of Al Yusufiyah Cemetery, located along the East Wall of Jerusalem. It is the burial place to many Muslim Palestinians. Over the last two years, the Jerusalem Municipality has intensified its actions against Al-Shuhada’ Cemetery, as it demolished key parts of the cemetery, eventually resulting in the destruction of a number of graves.  


Israel’s actions were soon disputed before the Israeli Magistrates Court by the Islamic Cemeteries Committee, a committee established and overseen by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf for purposes of managing and protecting Islamic Cemeteries in Jerusalem. The Committee debated that the Municipality’s plans to turn the Cemetery into a public park for the residents of the city were illegal and in violation of the status of the land where the Cemetery is established.  


The case of Al- Shuhada’ Cemetery is not an isolated incident. It is part of a wider and concerted effort by Israeli governmental bodies to desecrate religious Palestinian sites. Over the past years, Israel has targeted at least two other Palestinian cemeteries – Ma’man Allah (Mamilla), which has served as a cemetery for over 1,000 years, and Bab Al-Rahmah in Jerusalem. ICJP Analyst Dania Akram reports that this is part of a wider, systematic attempt by Israel to: ‘destroy the cultural heritage of Palestinians in Jerusalem [and to] undermine Palestinian national identity’ as a whole. 


This attack on Al Shuhada’ Cemetery, initiated by the Jerusalem Municipality, is carried out under the Israeli government’s pretext of implementing its’ nefarious planning laws. According to the Israeli Mayor of Jerusalem in a Facebook post on October 27, 2021, shared only in Arabic he stated that “as part of developing the public park area located alongside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, restorations were carried out at a cost of 20 million shekels for the benefit of residents of the city who live in the Islamic neighbourhood and its surroundings…the restorations started months ago after receiving all necessary permits and approvals, including the approval of Israel’s District Court…the area where the park is established is designated as a public park area and not a cemetery…the furthering of these plans is only intended to improve the livelihoods of Muslim residents and opening space for tens of thousands of Muslim worshippers.” 


The statement of the Mayor of Jerusalem is misleading and misguided. The excavation works and destruction of the Cemetery were still being contested in Israeli courts at the time his statement was issued. Further, the destruction of a sacred place with significant religious importance for purposes of establish a public park in no way serves the ‘Muslim residents’ of the city who have ceaselessly objected to these plans as degrading to their human dignity and demeaning towards their religious beliefs. Thirdly, claims to open space for tens of thousands of Muslim worshippers contradicts Israel’s years long military presence in the Old City, and its systematic restrictions on access to religious sites, which has over the years aggravated tensions and religious sensitivities for the Palestinian residents of the city. 


Regrettably, the decision by the Sub-Committee for Objections to confiscate the entirety of the land where the Cemetery is established is yet another indicator to Israel’s institutionalised policy of targeting Palestinians’ cultural heritage. This policy is especially prevalent in Jerusalem and aims to entrench Israeli domination over the city and devaluing Palestinians’ culture. This decision initiated by the Israeli Ministry of Interior, alongside the de facto Israeli actions undertaken in the Cemetery are in contravention of Israel’s international legal obligations. 


According to the norms of international human rights law, cemeteries enjoy the same special status as places of worship and other holy sites. They are protected as an essential part of how people exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief. This has been set out by UN human rights experts alongside the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, who affirmed the significance of cemeteries and their extension beyond their physical presence, while confirming that attacks on cemeteries are unacceptable and are a deliberate violation of freedom of religion or belief. In 1993, the Human Rights Committee clarified in its general comment, on freedom of religion or belief, that “The concept of worship extends to ritual and ceremonial acts giving direct expression to belief, as well as various practices integral to such acts, including the building of places of worship.”  


Furthermore, the iniquitous treatment of Jewish and Muslim religious sites has been highlighted by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief in their 2009 report, which noted the existing legal provisions for the protection of Jewish holy and sacred sites, with no equivalent legal provisions being established for the protection of other religious places. This disparity in the treatment between Jewish and non-Jewish religious sites contravenes the legal provisions contained in the International Convention of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 1969, to which Israel is party to and is under the obligation to uphold. 


One other branch of law to consider regarding this matter is Israel’s position as an occupying power in East Jerusalem, which gives rise to legal obligations under International Humanitarian Law. Firstly, as an occupying power, Israel is under an elevated level of responsibility to protect the rights of the occupied Palestinian population in accordance with its obligations as an occupying power stipulated in the Fourth Geneve Convention, 1949. Secondly, Israel is under the obligation to respect and maintain the status of East Jerusalem as occupied territory according to many resolutions by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Consequences of Constructing the Wall; meaning that Israel cannot impose its own set of laws in the city and destroy Palestinian property. Lastly, Article 34 of the First Additional Protocol to the Fourth Geneva Convention 1977, explicitly call for the protection of gravesites and respect for the dead.  


The incessant Israeli actions and violations towards places of religious importance for Palestinians has over the years aggravated religious sensitivities not only for Palestinians but for Christians and Muslims all over the world. Therefore, and in light of the above, ICJP calls on the Israeli government to comply with its’ international obligations, to ensure respect for religious places, and halt its ongoing works in Al-Shuhada’ Cemetery respecting human remains and the dignity of the dead.  

Attached to this press release is ICJP’s speech delivered during PASSIA’s roundtable discussion, held in Jerusalem on March 1, 2022, which focused on the importance of cultural heritage and its protection:

“Good afternoon, everyone 

Firstly, I would like to thank Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi, Founder and Executive Director of PASSIA for organising this roundtable discussion and inviting me to speak today.  

I would also like to thank Mr. Mustafa Abu Zahra, Head of the Islamic Cemeteries Committee for his valuable briefing on the current situation in Al Shuhada’ cemetery. Finally, I also thank and extend my appreciation to the attendees for their time and interest in this important topic. 

To introduce myself, I am Dania Akram, a researcher and analyst at the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians, an independent organisation of lawyers, politicians, and academics based in the UK which supports the rights of Palestinians wherever in the world they may live and seeks to protect their rights through the law. 

I am also a Palestinian lawyer, with a specific interest in cultural heritage. The case of Al Shuhada’ Cemetery is of particular interest to me, not just professionally, but also due to my identity as a Jerusalemite.  

Heritage, whether tangible or intangible, reflects the collective struggle of Palestinians for their right to self-determination whether living in Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, within ‘48 borders, or in the diaspora. Our culture is a manifestation of our unity, shared bonds and belonging, a representation of our history and identity, and the gateway to our past, present, and future. 

The destruction of Al Shuhada’ Cemetery extends beyond the destruction of just a physical space. It is illustrative of the Israeli government’s systematic attempts, in this case using the nefarious planning laws of the Jerusalem Municipality, to destroy the cultural heritage of Palestinians in Jerusalem disrupting their collective memory and identity. The Israeli government’s efforts to destroy Palestinian national identity are well documented and though not the direct subject of this talk, the attack on this Cemetery should be viewed within this context.  

Lying at the heart of this, threatened by physical destruction, is another less tangible target. The emotive bonds of Palestinians, not just to other living relatives, but to the dead. It demonstrates a complete disregard for the need for Palestinians to commemorate their fallen and to mourn their deceased.  

We have already heard from Mr. Mustafa Abu Zahra who has described the history of this cemetery and its’ value to Palestinians, as well as the ongoing and intensifying destruction of it by the Israeli authorities. As he mentioned, the Cemetery is about four and a half dunams, is located right beside Al Yusufiya Cemetery has been confiscated entirely as the Jerusalem Municipality has continuously denied its status as a cemetery. The question is what can be done about these attacks described by Mr. Abu Zahra? To date the Islamic Cemeteries Committee contested the status of the land where the Cemetery is located before the Israeli magistrate and then submitted multiple injunctions to the Israeli Magistrates court to halt Israel’s actions in the Cemetery until a final decision on the legality of turning the cemetery land into a public park has been made. 

Let’s consider what it legally means when we talk about cultural heritage. The preamble to the 1968 UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Preservation of Cultural Property Endangered by Public or Private Works states that cultural heritage is “the product and witness of the different traditions and of the spiritual achievements of the past and thus is an essential element in the personality of the peoples of the world.” Embodying both archaeological and historical elements, cultural heritage is reflective of the values, language, history, beliefs and practices that underpin the identity specific and unique to a people.  

Over the years, and particularly since its occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) in 1967, Israeli destruction of Palestinian cultural heritage have been documented in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem; in the West Bank attacks on Haram Al Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron that started after the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslim dawn worshippers by the American-Israeli settler Baruch Goldstien, was the most severe attack, but it should not be forgotten that attacks continue to persist until this very day. It is not solely Muslim sites that have been damaged by the Israeli army in the past, for example the damage done to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem during the siege that took place between 2 April – 10 May 2002. A more recent example is the Israeli bombing of the Said al Meshal Cultural Centre 2018, and the raiding in May 2021 of the Dar Yusuf Nasri Jacir for Art and Research in Bethlehem. While the destruction of the Samir Mansour Bookshop and damage of two art galleries in Gaza were by no means the greatest tragedy during the last Israeli offence on Gaza strip that took place in May 2021, the destruction of these cultural institutions ripped a hole through Gazans’ and Palestinians cultural heritage.  These are only a few examples of years of Israel’s systematic targeting of Palestinian sites of cultural/religious significance. 

Other forms of Israeli attacks on Palestinian cultural heritage have been manifested through the Israeli smear campaign against civil society organisations in the OPT but in Jerusalem specifically, attacks on journalists are widespread, stifling debate and constraints on basic freedoms of assembly and speech, cutting people away their political representation, preventing people from articulating a Palestinians voice, and attacks on more private manifestations of culture. These are all multi-layered attacks, aimed at destroying the multi-religious-cultural fabric of Palestinians. 

The City of Jerusalem 

When Israel illegally annexed the City of Jerusalem in 1967 and 1980, it soon developed a Masterplan with the central goal of entrenching Israeli domination over the city, removing its Palestinian residents into the more distant neighbourhoods of Northern and Southern Jerusalem.  

The continued attacks against the cultural identity of the city of Jerusalem and its own Palestinian residents has extended over the years. Three days after the occupation of Jerusalem in 1967, Israeli authorities destroyed the Moroccan quarter within the walled city of Jerusalem, a valued centre of a rich historical heritage. The systematic policies of erosion, banning or disruption of Palestinian heritage has included cultural centres, schools and curricula. The intensified Israeli military presence within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem has over the years induced provocations and attacks against Muslim and Christian worshippers trying to access their religious sites such as Al-Haram Sharif Compound, Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most recent documentation of those attacks took place in May 2021 and is in fact a daily occurrence. Additionally, continued settler violence against worshippers and places of worship has persisted, the latest example of which was the attempt to set the Church of all Nations, a Roman Catholic Church, in Jerusalem on fire on December 4, 2020.  

Further, Israeli attacks against the cultural identity of the Jerusalemite residents of the city can be seen through the constant Israeli threats of shutting down Palestinians schools in the city, controlling Palestinian students’ curriculum to impose the Israeli historical narrative rather than the Palestinian one. Attacks against cultural and political centres such as the Orient House, which was closed by Israel in 1988, and the continued targeting of Yabous Cultural Centre, and Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, are further evidence of the relentless Israeli attempts to destroy Palestinian cultural heritage. Israeli desecration of Islamic cemeteries in the city of Jerusalem is certainly not unprecedented. What is currently happening in Al Shuhada’ cemetery is an exemplary of Israel’s years long targeted attacks against this cemetery and is repetitive to what has been done to Ma’man Allah Cemetery which was destroyed in 2008 after over 1000 years? of serving as a cemetery for purposes of building a Jewish ironically named “Museum of Tolerance.” While the disparity in the treatment of Jewish and non-Jewish holy sites is very clear in the marked inequality in the treatment of Jewish remains and non-Jewish ones. According to a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion in 2008, “Several legal provisions in Israel… aim to safeguard and preserve sacred places from desecration and stipulate criminal sanctions for the violation of a holy site. The Religious Affairs Minister is charged with the implementation of the 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law and may issue regulations as to any matter relating to such implementation. However, all the 136 places which have been designated as holy sites until the end of 2007 are Jewish and the Government of Israel has so far only issued implementing regulations for Jewish holy sites.” 

The attack against Al Shuhada’ cemetery, carried out under the pretext of nefarious planning laws of the Jerusalem Israeli Municipality, claiming that the graves were placed there illegally, or aiming to build a public park for Palestinians, are yet another one of Israel’s attempts to destroy the cultural heritage of Palestinians in Jerusalem. The pretext of urban planning has been long identified to serve objectives of colonial powers to devalue indigenous culture. On this point, the writer Timothy Mitchell quoted the French colonial administrator, Marshal Hubert Lyautey who described the need for two Cairos: 

There are two Cairos, the modern, infinitely the more attractive one, and the old, which seems destined to prolong its agony and not to revive, being unable to struggle against progress and its inevitable consequences. One is the Cairo of artists, the other of hygienists and modernists.’ He goes on to quote Frantz Fanon’s distinction between the ‘the settler’s town, a strongly built town, all made of stone and steel,’ and the “the native town, the negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute.” 

The same process of negating one cultural reality in favour of upholding another one can be seen in Jerusalem today.  

As Prof. Michael Lynk, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in the OPT Stated in his 2021 report, A right without a remedy is ultimately no right at all,” it is imperative for groups and individuals working on Palestine, to ensure that rights are not just proclaimed, but that they are protected and that remedies are found, either on the national level or the international one.”