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Plan to Build 'Tolerance' Museum Near Muslim Cemetery Draws Fire

Sheera Frenkel

Dyala Husseini-Dajani walks through the Mamilla cemetery where her ancestors were buried. (Sheera Frenkel/MCT)

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.

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.

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

"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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

over the site has led to delays in the project and several of those
involved, including architect Frank Gehry, have backed out.

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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