In the winter of 1948, driving to the Mount of Olives became dangerous because the route passed through Arab neighborhoods. The British allowed the Jews to hold burials on the mountain only twice a week, at night, and only with an armed escort. When the security situation worsened in the spring, burials on the Mount of Olives ceased entirely, and the burial societies were given plots of land in western Jerusalem.
Sixty-four years later, with the Mount of Olives under Israeli sovereignty, there is no escaping the painful comparison. The incidents that have taken place on the way to the Mount of Olives over the past several months are reminiscent of the British Mandate era. Almost every week, Jews are attacked on their way there. Families who wish to visit the graves of their loved ones or hold funerals there need armed security guards. As a result, the public has made its choice: many families who had formerly wished to hold funerals on the Mount of Olives now choose cemeteries in the city’s western section.
An Israel Hayom survey reveals that since the year 2000, approximately 3,500 Jewish burials have taken place on the Mount of Olives — a drastic drop of about 50 percent compared with the first decades following the 1967 Six-Day War. According to the cemetery council, demand for burial in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, the largest and most important Jewish cemetery in the world, is declining after 3,000 years. Taxi drivers from all over Israel sent a letter to the police commissioner stating that at certain hours of the day, the drive to the Mount of Olives endangers their lives, since vehicles belonging to Jews are pelted with stones and boulder fragments from both sides of the road. Several drivers have stopped taking families to memorial services there. One driver, Pinhas Saidoff, declared that he "won’t risk my life or the lives of my passengers."
"What is happening on the way to the Mount of Olives is a disgrace. If Jews were to throw stones at Arab cars, the authorities would put a stop to it quickly enough,” Saidoff said.
After a long period of dormancy, the authorities have finally started to wake up over the past few years, perhaps not a moment too soon. In an attempt to prevent vandalism and gravestone desecration, 123 cameras placed throughout the Mount of Olives transmit images to centers run by the Housing Ministry. Soon, the cameras will also be connected to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and to the new police station on the mount. As yet, no cameras have been mounted on the road where most of the Jews have been attacked — the road that connects Mount Scopus to the Mount of Olives and goes through the A-Tur neighborhood. Therefore, the police cannot ensure the safety of Jews driving to or from the mount.
The reconstruction work on the mount, to repair the damage that the Jordanians did to both the mountain and the gravestones between 1948 and 1967, is progressing very slowly. The Jordanians smashed, desecrated and destroyed 38,000 gravestones during the nineteen years that they controlled the Mount of Olives and East Jerusalem. Many gravestones were used as raw materials in the construction of homes, roads, stairs, toilets and walls. Other graves were paved over, to serve as roads. Israel’s protests went unheeded.
But when Israel came back to the mount, it put off rebuilding. Only in 2008, 41 years after the Six-Day War, did reconstruction work on the mount and its gravestones go into high gear. It was only in the last three years that the Jerusalem Development Authority repaired 16,000 gravestones. Meanwhile, the police have recently had much more success in dealing with the youth gangs and terrorists who smash gravestones and attack Jews.
Thanks to work by the police’s minorities division, undercover agents, the Border Police and the Israel Security Agency, 63 suspects — 25 adults and 38 minors — have been arrested since the beginning of the year. Charges have been filed against 11 of them, and another 17 indictments are still pending.
The Jerusalem Periphery police unit, commanded by Brig. Gen. Nissim Edri, has approached prominent figures in the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as leading educators, in order to involve them in calming the spirits. The directors of the burial societies are demanding that the police and the courts treat the attacks as acts of terrorism rather than as criminal acts, which would prevent most of the suspects from being released on bail. Security officials say that this is a decision for the political echelon.
Maj. Gen. (ret.) Mickey Levy, the former commander of the police's Jerusalem district, said this week, “The police are understaffed in Jerusalem. When a decision has to be made about where to station the available officers — on the way to the Western Wall or on the way to the Mount of Olives — it is not an easy decision.”
The most significant escalation of violence in that area was recorded during the Second Intifada in 2000, but recently there has been a resurgence of such violence against Jews. Those who attended the funeral of the well-known businessman and philanthropist Cyril Stein last year may recall how the police instructed the drivers in the long funeral procession making its way to the Mount of Olives to turn off their headlights and drive in complete darkness in order to avoid being attacked. “We felt humiliated,” one of the mourners said.
Although Cyril Stein’s funeral ended with nothing worse than hurt feelings, other cases have ended with Jews being attacked and wounded. When Yisrael Schechter was wounded by a stone thrown at his windshield near the Maale Zeitim neighborhood, he was taken to Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. The Yaari family of Kiryat Malachi was on their way to a memorial service on the Mount of Olives when, on the A-Tur road, their car was blocked and they were attacked by a group of about 20 stone-throwing Arab men. The rear window was smashed and the stones were subsequently hurled directly at the passengers. The attackers tried to open the car doors, but the quick thinking of the father, who managed to maneuver the car out of the area, saved their lives.
Last March, a resident of Jerusalem, who wanted to visit his mother’s grave on his wedding day, fell into a particularly violent ambush. Near the A-Tur high school, his car was surrounded by a group of about 40 young men. At first, they splashed white paint on the car windows. Then they threw cinderblocks and boulder fragments at the car, smashing all the windows. One of the cinderblocks struck the groom-to-be in the head, and he started to bleed. The attackers dragged him out of the car and kicked him. Luckily, the attempted lynching only caused minor wounds, but the victim was terribly traumatized.
Last month, a bus chartered by members of the Gur hasidic sect came under a hail of stones as it drove toward the grave of the fifth Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael Alter. Some leaders of hasidic sects in Jerusalem have ordered their followers not to go to the Mount of Olives because of the danger involved.
TThe violence peaked when Border Police officers were called in to rescue Nir Nahshon, a driver who had lost his way and ended up in the Arab neighborhood of Issawiyah, near Mount Scopus. Arab attackers pelted Nahshon’s car with stones, threw a firebomb at him, dragged him out of the car and beat and wounded him. One of the village mukhtars, together with his sons and Border Police troops who had been called to the scene, rescued him. The week before, young Arab men had attacked a family on their way to the cemetery to visit their mother’s grave. Police officers were also attacked in A-Tur, and five of them were wounded in one particular incident.
World Jewry is also quite troubled by the escalating violence near the Mount of Olives over the past two years. It is not only Israelis who bury their dead on the mount; Jews living abroad also bury their relatives there at times.
Two brothers, Avraham and Menachem Lubinsky, recently formed the International Committee to Preserve Har HaZeitim (Mount of Olives). They wished to visit the Mount of Olives before gathering a group of Knesset members and members of the U.S. Congress, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, in the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. Wishing to see the situation on the mount with their own eyes, they rented a luxury bus, and — not surprisingly — were pelted with stones. They gave a first-hand report on the attack at the conference.
The police have recently stationed a police unit near the Seven Arches Hotel. This is a temporary location — the permanent location is supposed to be on the grounds of the mosque that extends onto the Mount of Olives near Ras el-Amud. The police have also beefed up patrols on the roads leading to the mount, which has slightly reduced the number of attacks. Installing surveillance cameras on the mount has also helped, since Palestinians desecrating graves have been photographed, prosecuted and convicted. But such convictions usually carry light sentences. One Palestinian who was sentenced to three months in prison for desecrating the cemetery said during questioning that he had been given NIS 1,000 to commit the crime.
Avraham Lubinsky, the chairman of the International Committee to Preserve Har HaZeitim, thinks that the vandals get off cheaply. He noted that most Western countries and most states in the U.S. have specific legislation requiring mandatory jail terms for desecrating graves. “In New York State, for example, the vandal would get three years,” Lubinsky says.
A 40-year delay
The cemetery on the Mount of Olives covers approximately 250 dunams (62 acres) east of the Temple Mount. It serves as a pantheon commemorating the Jewish people's most prominent national and religious figures, who have been buried there for 3,000 years. Major Jewish figures and leaders of the country, artists from all walks of life, rabbis and leaders of Jewish sects are buried there, as are the biblical figures Hagai, Zechariah, Malachi, and Avshalom. Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, a well-known commentator on the Mishnah, is buried there, as is Rabbi Haim Ben Attar (author of the religious work Or ha-Hayyim).
Other major figures who are buried on the Mount of Olives include Pinhas Rutenberg, who founded the Israel Electric Corporation at the beginning of the twentieth century; the writers S.Y. Agnon and Haim Hazaz; the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg; and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who revived Hebrew as a modern spoken language. The leaders of the hasidic dynasties of Sadigura, Ger and Nadvorna are buried there, as is Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah. Great intellectuals such as Professor Ephraim Auerbach and Rabbi Abraham Isaac hacohen Kook are buried there, as is the sixth prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin. So is Yoel Moshe Salomon, who was one of the first people to build outside the walls of the Old City toward the end of the nineteenth century and also a founder of Petah Tikva. Tens of thousands of less well-known Jews are buried in the Yemenite, Bucharian, Georgian, hasidic, Iraqi and Jerusalemite sections. A computerized information center established recently by the Elad organization has mapped about 50,000 of the 70,000 graves on the mount. Anyone who wishes to find a grave whose location has been lost over the years can search for it with a few keystrokes, with a fair chance of succeeding.
Several weeks ago, a group of government officials and representatives of groups affiliated with the Mount of Olives met to discuss the situation under the auspices of the Knesset’s Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs. The meeting was initiated by the committee’s chairman, MK Danny Danon. The meeting was conducted on three separate channels, which didn't always meet. There were expressions of remorse, accusations, and many personal stories told by MKs and committee guests.
These guests included Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Kenneth Abramowitz of the U.S. branch of World Likud and Meir Indor, the chairman of the Almagor Terror Victims’
Organization. All of three had been attacked during a visit to the Mount of Olives. One question that police officials at the meeting were asked again and again was why security guards were even necessary for a visit to the Mount of Olives, and whether the police could obviate the need for them by treating the problem at the root.
Sarit Goldstein, a Prime Minister’s Office representative, said, “For forty years, nothing was done on the Mount of Olives. Even though it was restored to Israeli sovereignty, it was neglected and desecrated.” She recalled that when she began dealing with the subject, she looked for government decisions from the 1970s that dealt with the restoration of the Mount of Olives and an increase in security there.
“But nothing was done," she said. "The significant changes began in 2005, when the government decided on the Holy Basin plan, which included the restoration of the Mount of Olives. Eighty million shekels were allocated for it. The project took a very long time to get started. It’s only been over the past two years that we’ve been seeing improvement.”
The Mount of Olives on the negotiating table
One cannot tell the recent story of the Mount of Olives without mentioning the fact that it, too, was put on the Israel-Palestinian negotiating table. During the Camp David talks of 2000, in which then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to divide Jerusalem, Israel rejected the demand to relinquish sovereignty over the Mount of Olives. However, at the time Israel did agree to grant the Palestinians sovereignty over villages and neighborhoods such as A-Tur, part of Silwan, part of Ras el-Amud and parts of the Old City, through which the road to the mount passes.
During the administration of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, the Mount of Olives was made part of the area defined in the talks as “the Holy Basin,” and a special governing system was proposed. Sources close to the negotiating team said then that Israel had no intention of offering the Palestinians control over the Mount of Olives as part of the agreement. But Israel did agree to give the Palestinians control over strategic territories in the area and the neighborhoods that surrounded it.
The “Israeli team,” which comprised high-ranking Labor officials, was willing to go even further. Their Geneva Initiative was a series of non-binding, hypothetical negotiations between high-ranking Palestinian ministers and officials and members of the Labor Party and the Israeli left wing. Although the initiative had no legal status, the Palestinian and Israeli officials involved regarded it and its conclusions as the basis of a future agreement on Jerusalem as well. Paragraph 6 of the initiative states that the Mount of Olives shall be under Palestinian sovereignty.
When we consider the attacks on the Mount of Olives and the desecration of the gravestones there, which have been stopped only recently, it is not hard to imagine what would happen if the mount were to go under Palestinian control. As we recall, Jordan promised free access to the Mount of Olives in the armistice agreement that it signed. But between 1948 and 1967, Jordan prevented Israelis and Jews from visiting the mount and burying their dead there, in direct violation of its promise.