JERUSALEM — In a last-ditch protest, some of Jerusalem's most prominent Palestinian families and the city's chief Sunni Muslim cleric petitioned the United Nations this week to stop the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center from building a "Museum of Tolerance" on the site of an ancient Muslim cemetery.
Controversy has surrounded the site ever since the Israeli municipality built a parking lot on it in the 1960s. The Wiesenthal Center announced its plan for a large museum in 2004, prompting Palestinians to take the issue to the Israeli high court, which in October 2008 said the project could proceed. The families now say they've exhausted all legal options available to them.
Bulldozer tracks were still fresh in the mud around the tombstones of Dyala Husseini-Dajani's ancestors when she toured what's left of the Mamilla cemetery this week.
"There is nothing 'tolerant' about this action," said the 68-year-old, whose lineage along with her husband's includes two of the oldest Arab families in Jerusalem.
Husseini-Dajani bent down to touch one grave she recalled visiting as a child. The marker has been patched into place with a haphazard smear of concrete, and the tomb's outer wall looked as though it recently was smashed.
The petition she signed with 60 others who say they have family members buried in the Mamilla cemetery asks the U.N. office in Geneva that deals with freedom of religion to investigate the site and press Israel to stop construction.
"I fully support this petition. We cannot allow this to happen, " said Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the senior Muslim cleric who oversees Islamic holy places.
The cemetery is easily overlooked. Tucked into the northern corner of West Jerusalem's "Independence Park," a road borders one side of it, and broken bottles from nearby bars are strewn everywhere. Islam forbids the drinking of alcohol.
Archeologists estimate that only 10 percent of the original cemetery is still intact, and the rest has been covered over or remains underground. The last known burial occurred in the 1930s, though some experts think the cemetery was in use for more than a thousand years.
The Jerusalem offices of the Wiesenthal Center declined to comment, but its founder, Rabbi Marvin Hier, said the museum would promote coexistence and Arab-Israeli relations.
"All citizens of Israel, Jews and non-Jews, are the real beneficiaries of the site," said Hier, who said the city's Muslims didn't object to the previously built parking lot.
The Museum, "is being built on Jerusalem's former municipal car park, where every day for nearly half a century, thousands of Muslims, Christians and Jews parked their cars without any protest whatsoever from the Muslim community," Hier said.
The lack of protest over the car lot, which was built in the 1960s, was a key argument made by Museum's supporters in a case brought by a group of Palestinian non-governmental organizations before the Israeli High Court.
The high court cited the absence of protests over the parking lot when it was first constructed, coupled with insufficient archeological evidence of the cemetery's history. The land could be better served by a museum, the court concluded.
However, Dr. Raphael Greenberg, an Israeli archeologist at Tel Aviv University who's directed previous investigations at the cemetery, said that at least 800 graves are left in the area, and has recommended that construction be halted until a thorough excavation can be done. The court ignored his report, and he withdrew from any further excavations.
Photographs of bones being packed into cardboard boxes and partially crushed by construction have infuriated Jerusalem's Arab leaders, who said that the removal of bones from the site was a desecration of Islamic law.
The Israeli Antiquities Authority has said that the removal of bones was carried out in a "respectful" manner, and that no additional human remains are at the site. It added that a Muslim cleric had given permission to build on the site in the 1930s.
The families that signed the petition said they'd tried to revive the cemetery in past years, but were blocked by Jerusalem authorities. A series of protest in the 1960s was interrupted the frequent wars and tense division of Jerusalem until the 1967 Six-Day War.
"We always tried to come back, but we let it go too long, and now the last of this cemetery could be erased. This is the last part that is left, and we are now finally here, organized to fight for it," said Husseini-Dajani.
Controversy over the site has led to delays in the project and several of those involved, including architect Frank Gehry, have backed out.
Rabbi Hier has estimated that the $100 million dollar project has now been downsized to $80 million. He's said that the Wiesenthal Center is currently considering other designs, and is expected to announce its decision in coming weeks.
Palestinian opponents of the museum said it could be built in a different location, or with a raised platform that would allow family members to visit the graves.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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