The Israel Lands Administration claims that the Islamic Movement's northern branch, led by Sheik Raed Salah, has been planting fake tombstones in an ancient Muslim cemetery in central Jerusalem as part of a "land war" being waged by the organization against the authority.
According to the ILA, officials sent to inspect the tombstones at the Mamilla Cemetery in downtown Jerusalem were stunned to find no evidence of any graves under them. While burials have not taken place inside the cemetery for decades, senior sources at the authority claim that new gravestones have mysteriously appeared in recent years in areas where no graves were previously documented.
The authority claims it has collected documentation over an extended period of time proving that fake graves were placed at the site with the personal involvement of Sheik Raed Salah and other members of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, who came to the cemetery "to personally supervise the placing of additional fake graves and the maintenance of fake graves set up in the past."
The authority's communications consultant Tom Wagner told Israel Hayom that, "Suspicions arose in 2007 that the Islamic Movement was trying to take over the cemetery when representatives of the Muslim public, who turned out to be movement representatives requested a permit from the Jerusalem municipality to carry out maintenance work in the cemetery. The municipality approved the permit, after which workers from the Islamic Movement arrived to clean up the area of the cemetery. However, an inspection carried out at the site of the maintenance works exposed a different reality."
"We're talking about fraud on a massive scale," Israel Scoop, who heads the Department of Oversight and Supervision at the ILA, said. "Five hundred tombstones, custom-made from concrete and stones brought in from the Galilee, were placed in the graveyard at a great financial investment by dozens of workers, who instead of cleaning up the place, as their permit allows, placed a huge number of fictitious tombstones there. This is a deliberate provocation through means which create the appearance of continuing burial and activity in the cemetery, with everything that entails."
Scoop continued, "In recent years, ILA inspectors have had to deal with squatting, trespassing and illegal construction by Islamic Movement elements who are attempting to establish facts on the ground, both in the graveyards and in terms of building mosques on land not zoned for them."
Scoop said that after the ILA began to remove the fake tombstones recently, the Islamic Movement secured a court injunction halting the authority's work. Following court proceedings between the two sides, however, the injunction was cancelled and ILA personnel managed to remove most of the fake tombstones, with the remainder slated to be removed soon as well.
"The Israel Lands Administration will continue to track activities such as these and act according to the law in order to preserve state lands," Scoop told Israel Hayom.
Sheik Salah is currently under arrest in the U.K. for illegal entry. Responding on his behalf, the Islamic Movement said, "We do not wish to respond to the campaign of slander, defamation and lies being waged against us by the Israel Lands Administration."
The Mamilla cemetery is a historic Muslim cemetery located just to the west of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. The cemetery, at the center of which lies the Mamilla Pool, contains the remains of figures from the early Islamic period, several Sufi shrines and Mamluk-era tombs. The cemetery grounds also contain the bodies of thousands of Christians killed in the pre-Islamic era, as well several tombs from Crusader times.
In recent years it has been the focus of a controversy surrounding plans by the Simon Wiesenthal Center to build its Museum of Tolerance on a site adjacent to the cemetery. In 2010, the center's dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, said, "Our opponents would have you believe our bulldozers are preparing to desecrate ancient Muslim tombstones and historic markers. Let me be clear: The Museum of Tolerance is not being built on the Mamilla cemetery, but on an adjacent 3-acre site where, for half a century, hundreds of people of all faiths have parked in a three-level underground structure without any protest."