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Mosque Revival Effort in Israel Stirs Passions


BEERSHEBA, Israel — Boarded over and trash-strewn, the Great Mosque that served the once thriving Muslim population of this desert town has become another battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian war over memory and land.

To Muslims, the sandstone building, with its graceful minaret and dome, arched windows and interior courtyard, is a holy site, a cherished remnant of the Arab Beersheba that existed before the 1948 birth of the Jewish state. The structure is one of many mosques, shrines and cemeteries across the nation that Muslims--to the consternation of Israelis--are trying to reclaim and restore, even when they lie within Jewish cities.

To city officials of Jewish Beersheba, the mosque is the future Beersheba Museum of the Negev, an eyesore at the moment that they are working to transform into an art and antiquities showcase. They reject the demands by the fundamentalist Islamic Movement as yet another challenge to Israel's right to exist, seeing them as an effort to rewrite the historical reality that Palestinians lost and Jews won in the 1948 war.

"The political leadership of Beersheba thought it was an effort to take us back to the past," said city engineer Tsvi Tal-Yosef. "It was asking to change the equilibrium of the city. Both sides are suspicious of every effort to change the status quo."

The city has already begun renovations on an Ottoman building next to the mosque that will serve as part of the museum complex. It hopes to have the structurally unsound mosque renovated and reopened as a museum within a year, Tal-Yosef said.

But Arab activists say they won't abandon their efforts to reclaim the mosque or other holy sites. They say city officials should honor Beersheba's Muslim past and acknowledge the needs of Muslims who have begun moving into the city in recent years.

Officials acknowledge that about 5,000 Arabs have moved into Beersheba, a city of 185,000. It is the largest urban center in the Negev desert in southern Israel and provides services to about 120,000 Arabs in surrounding villages. Taleb Sanaa, an Arab lawmaker from the Negev who has spearheaded efforts to restore the Great Mosque, points out that Muslims in Beersheba have nowhere to carry out the Islamic injunction of prayer five times a day.

"The problem is that Jews still have a ghetto mentality," Sanaa said. "Everything is a threat. We are not changing the character of the town by restoring a mosque here."

Motives Questioned

But it's not just the character of Beersheba that Israelis are fretting about. Efforts by Israeli Arabs to reclaim holy sites in abandoned Palestinian villages, or in cities that were once Palestinian and are now Jewish, have unleashed powerful fears, said Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and author of the book "Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948."

Jews see the efforts as politically motivated, Benvenisti said, "particularly now, when the Palestinian Authority is insisting on the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Before they reopened the question of 1948, these demands could be treated as a local thing, a purely religious question.

"Now Israelis see it from a different perspective. Now every restoration is viewed as a precedent."

Peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians foundered last summer in part over the issue of about 4 million Palestinians--refugees and their offspring--who want to return to homes inside Israel's prewar 1948 borders. Israel does not recognize a Palestinian right of return. In fact, across the political spectrum in Israel, there is near consensus that any large-scale repatriation of Palestinian refugees would spell the end of the Jewish state.

Every time the Islamic Movement sends a letter to an official laying claim to the ruins of a mosque or shrine, Benvenisti said, "it reminds Israelis that the story of '48 is unfinished, and this is something that they cannot bear. It undermines the whole foundation of the Jewish presence here."

In his book, Benvenisti details what he calls Israel's systematic erasure of the Palestinian landscape after 1948, a task accomplished by the meticulous renaming of every significant geographical feature in Hebrew, the bulldozing of entire villages and the co-opting of Muslim shrines as Jewish holy sites.

Jews contend that the same process was undertaken by Palestinians in the ancient city of Hebron, where the Jewish community was wiped out in 1929, and that a similar effort to erase history is underway now on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. At the disputed holy site, the Islamic Trust, or Waqf, has carried out excavations that some Israeli scholars say are destroying archeological remnants of the Jewish temples of antiquity that lie beneath the Al Aqsa mosque.

Israeli Arabs, who make up nearly a fifth of Israel's population, are Palestinians who stayed put when the state was created, along with their descendants. They are citizens with the right to vote, but they face various forms of discrimination.

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