The Muslim cemetery in the suburban Haifa town of Nesher, where Arab nationalist Izz ad-Din al-Qassam (1882-1935) is buried, spreads over 43 dunams (10.6 acres). Part of the cemetery was expropriated by the State of Israel and sold 50 years ago to a private company. In 2015, the company decided to make use of the land and build industrial facilities on it. With that in mind, the firm went to court and demanded, among other things, that several graves be relocated in keeping with an agreement that it claimed was signed in the 1970s between the state and Islamic institutions. A Haifa court is deliberating this sensitive legal issue.
Meanwhile, the Haifa Waqf (custodian of Muslim endowments) invited Arab Knesset members to visit the site to mobilize public opinion against moving the graves. “We are always hearing about local and national projects being stopped and scrapped by the state when Jewish graves are accidentally discovered, but when it comes to Muslim graves, Arab burial sites, everyone thinks it’s quite normal [to desecrate them],” Arab Knesset member Masud Ghnaim of the predominantly Arab unified Joint List told Al-Monitor.
Orwa Switat, an activist opposed to construction on part of the cemetery, told Al-Monitor that in mid-May, following another court hearing, suspicious digging was discovered near Qassam's grave. His guess is that right-wing activists were responsible. “These excavations were 2 meters [6.5 feet] deep. It’s an ugly violation of the sanctity of this place,” said Switat.
He and some friends reported the damage to the police, who closed off the area involved and sought to calm tensions. One can easily guess how things might have evolved had Qassam’s grave itself or those of other Arab and Palestinian nationalists been desecrated or robbed.
The complex, tense legal issue concerning the Muslim graveyard has now made headlines, in no small measure due to Channel 20, a nationalist, right-wing television outlet. On May 16, the channel posted a photo on its Facebook page showing Joint List Knesset members carrying wreaths at the cemetery in Nesher, one of which was subsequently placed at Qassam’s grave.
“Izz ad-Din al-Qassam was one of the Middle East’s biggest terrorists of the 20th century,” read the caption next to the photo. “The terrorist organizations he founded were responsible for the murders of dozens of people: British, French and Jewish. The Hamas terror organization named its band of assassins after him — the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades — as well as the rockets it fires at Israel, the famous Qassam missiles. This is the man on whose grave Israeli Knesset members of the Joint List laid flowers. Just don’t tell us afterward that they aspire to live in peace.”
Channel 20, which broadcasts under license via satellite and cable, has for many months been violating accepted media standards and engaging in daily incitement against anything that does not conform to its radical right-wing line. Its programming and Facebook page present aggressive messages that are in no way journalistic or legitimate expressions of opinion. Thus, for example, members of the channel’s editorial board banded together to defend Elor Azarya, the soldier who shot to death a wounded Palestinian who had attacked another soldier, and organized a rally in his support in Tel Aviv. Harsh words were written on the channel's Facebook page against President Reuven Rivlin because channel directors were dissatisfied with his comments on the soldier’s case. CEO Moti Sklar was subsequently forced to apologize.
Regarding its post on the cemetery, the channel did not report the reason for the Arab Knesset members’ visit, leaving the impression that the lawmakers had made a pilgrimage to Qassam’s grave to honor him, on May 15, the 68th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba (or Catastrophe). “Izz ad-Din al-Qassam is a historic Palestinian figure,” said Knesset member Ghnaim. “True, he is identified today with the Hamas brigades, and he carried out a revolution against the [British] Mandate, and we did lay a wreath on his tomb, but we came to this cemetery at the invitation of the Haifa Waqf to prevent the destruction or desecration of historic graves.”
Ghnaim surmises that Jewish radicals were the ones who had tried to damage Qassam’s grave. He said there’s no proof that the grave was damaged or that bones were removed, but the fact is that someone tried to vandalize the tomb.
“As far as we’re concerned, there’s a just struggle here against a plan to damage the cemetery, and that’s why we’re fighting,” said Switat. “We’re not trying to defy anyone or to preserve symbols hurtful to Israeli feelings.”
Ghnaim is also concerned about the incitement by some in Israel who are trying to turn a just protest against damaging an ancient cemetery into a clash between Muslims and Jews in an attempt to turn public opinion against Arab lawmakers.
“The hatred of the Arabs has reached unimaginable heights,” Ghnaim said. Although he may not fear for himself, Ghnaim warned, “There are threats against Knesset members of the Joint List like Jamal Zahalka and Hanin Zoabi. This could eventually end in blood.”