by Al Akhbar
In the latest Israeli efforts to stifle Palestinian culture, authorities in the Israeli-occupied city of Beersheba recently converted a historical mosque into an Islamic museum, despite the fact that 10,000 local Palestinian Muslims have nowhere to pray, locals said.
Locals told Ma’an news agency that an exhibit showcasing a collection of Muslim prayer rugs was recently opened in the building that was formerly the Great Mosque of Beersheba, which was once used regularly as a house of worship before the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their land in 1948.
The exhibit, which locals say has no Arab or Muslim member on the technical supervisory team, will continue until June 2015.
The move comes after decades of protest from the area’s 10,000-strong Palestinian Muslim community, composed primarily of local Bedouins whose ancestors survived the Israeli expulsions as well as Palestinian with Israeli citizenship who have moved to the city from other parts of the country.
Representatives of the community have long petitioned Israeli authorities to allow them to open the mosque for daily prayers or at least once a week for Friday prayers. However, their demands were repeatedly rejected.
The Great Mosque of Beersheba, a town originally known as Bir al-Sabaa, was built in 1906 during the Ottoman era with donations collected from the Bedouin residents of the Negev.
It remained an active mosque until the Israelis occupied the city in 1948 and turned it into a detention center and headquarters for a magistrate court, following the expulsion of Beersheba’s approximately 6,000 Palestinian residents, most of whom fled to Gaza.
Thousands of Jewish immigrants were subsequently brought in to populate the city, while the Palestinian refugees were never allowed to return, despite many of them living only kilometers away.
In 1953, the Israeli authorities turned a portion of the mosque into a museum, which was recognized in 1987 by the Israeli department of archeology as the Negev Museum.
In 1992, the museum was shut down because the building had become vulnerable. However, it was retrofitted recently, paving the way for its reuse.
On December 10, Israel resumed excavations in a Muslim graveyard in West Jerusalem as part of the “Museum of Tolerance” project.
So far in 2014, Israel has demolished more than 543 Palestinian structures and displaced at least 1,266 people, according to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).
The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions estimates that Israeli authorities have demolished about 27,000 Palestinian structures in the West Bank since 1967.
A recent statement from the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiation Affairs department said that “despite its small size, Palestine has an abundance of historical, religious and cultural heritage sites. Every inch of this land has a story to tell, every hill the scene of a battle, and every stone a monument or a tomb. One cannot understand the geography of Palestine without knowing its history and one cannot understand its history without understanding its geography.”
But Israel has systematically tried to obliterate, annex and confiscate Palestinian sites as it seeks to strip the land it occupies of its Palestinian identity.
Palestinians accuse Israel of heritage theft as Israeli authorities, besides taking over Palestinian lands and properties, deliberately target sites that have historical importance and provide evidence of Palestinian heritage and culture.
Following Israel’s summer offensive against Gaza, many of Strip’s ancient sites, including houses of worship, tombs and cemeteries, were left in ruins.
Gaza’s historic mosques, dating back to the time of the first Islamic caliphs and the Ottoman Empire, were the worst affected.
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, Israel targeted mosques on purpose, partially damaging 130 mosques and completely destroying 73.
The destruction of Gaza’s ancient mosques has brought the total losses incurred by the religious affairs ministry to an estimated $50 million.
Gaza’s only three churches were also damaged during the latest conflict, including the oldest church in the Gaza Strip, the Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius, which dates back to the 1150s.
Moreover, settler violence against Palestinians and their property is also systematic and often abetted by Israeli authorities, who rarely intervene in the violent attacks or prosecute the perpetrators.
On November 12, a group of Israeli settlers broke in and torched a mosque in the Palestinian village of al-Mughayyir near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. Witnesses, who went to the mosque at around 4:40 am to perform dawn prayers, said the settlers burnt 12 copies of the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, and set the carpets of the first floor of the two-story building on fire.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there were at least 399 incidents of settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in 2013.
Israeli authorities have also allowed Zionist settlers to take over homes in Palestinian neighborhoods both in annexed East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and announced plans to build thousands of settlements strictly for Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem while ignoring Palestinian residents.
In addition, Israeli settlers and military forces also regularly sabotage, burn and uproot hundreds of thousands of olive trees, which are highly symbolic for the Palestinian community.
In order to build its apartheid wall and infrastructure for Israeli-only settlements, Israeli bulldozers plowed down more than 800,000 olive trees in the West Bank, the equivalent of bulldozing all of New York City’s Central Park 33 times.
Besides destroying historical sites, Israel encroaches on Palestinian spaces and heritage in the name of tourism.
Following its expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, Israel rewrote maps, changed the names of Palestinian towns and streets, and tailored their own versions of history very early on so as to counter future generation of Palestinians.
On Sunday, the Israeli parliament’s finance committee voted through $3.3 million to build a tourist center in a settlement in the occupied West Bank, a statement said.
The money is for a project at the Barkan settlement in the north of the Palestinian territory, the Knesset statement said.
According to the Palestinian Authority (PA), besides it being an effective tool in oppressing the Palestinian narrative and rewriting history, tourism is one of the basic grounds upon which the Israeli economy is built.
Palestinian tour guides or transportation companies haven’t been able to enter the Israeli-occupied territories since 2000. From over 240 tourist guides licensed to work all over Palestine before occupation, only 42 have permits to guide in Israel, which are renewed periodically and without guarantee.
In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the PA says Israel collects about 90 percent of revenue related to pilgrims and tourists.
Sunday’s vote came less than three months before a snap general election on March 17 backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but denounced by the opposition.
Centrist Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, sacked by Netanyahu as finance minister on December 2, called Sunday’s finance committee vote “electoral corruption.”
“Netanyahu wants to please the settler lobby before the elections,” he told the private television station Channel 10.
The expansion of Israeli settlements remains a major stumbling block to peace with the Palestinians. According to international law, settlements on occupied land are illegal.
In November, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Israel will never agree to limit its illegal settlement building in annexed East Jerusalem, a day after the PLO said in a statement on Independence Day that the “possibility of a two-state solution is quickly fading away” because of Israel’s settlement plans.
According to the PLO, between 1989 and 2014, the number of Israeli settlers on Palestinian land soared from 189,900 to nearly 600,000. These settlements, meanwhile, are located between and around Palestinians towns and villages, making a contiguous state next to impossible.
While major Palestinian cities have boomed in the past 26 years, Israeli confiscation of land in border regions has continued unabated.
According to a UN report published in early December, the PA lost at least $310 million in customs and sales tax in 2011 as a result of importing from or through Israeli-occupied territories.
Last year, the World Bank estimated that Israeli control over Area C – the 61 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli military control – costs the Palestinian economy around $3.4 billion annually, or more than one-third of the Palestinian Authority’s GDP.
The roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict date back to 1917, when the British government, in the now-infamous “Balfour Declaration,” called for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank during the 1967 Middle East War. It later annexed the holy city in 1980, claiming it as the capital of the self-proclaimed Zionist state – a move never recognized by the international community.
In November 1988, Palestinian leaders led by Arafat declared the existence of a State of Palestine inside the 1967 borders and the State’s belief “in the settlement of international and regional disputes by peaceful means in accordance with the charter and resolutions of the United Nations.”
Heralded as a “historic compromise,” the move implied that Palestinians would agree to accept only 22 percent, believed to have become 17 percent after massive Israeli settlement building, of historic Palestine in exchange for peace with Israel.
On the 26th anniversary of the treaty’s signing, the PLO said in a statement in November that despite the 1988 ‘“compromise,” Israel had since failed to be “a partner in peace,” adding that the Israeli expansion and colonization of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has dimmed the prospect of a two-state solution.
“Israel responded by colonizing more of our land and entrenching its control over the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. The possibility of a two-state solution is quickly fading away,” the statement read.
(Al-Akhbar, AFP, Ma’an)