In an audacious act of desecration, Arab residents of Jerusalem uprooted gravestones on the holy Mount of Olives in Jerusalem in order to pave stairs directly on top of the graves of Jews. An Arab was arrested but he was back at work the very next day. Were it not for the bravery of a few Jewish residents of the Muslim majority section of the city, the oldest and most prominent Jewish cemetery in the world would be destroyed without a trace of existence remaining.
Aryeh King, a city council member who lives on the Mount of Olives, witnessed the damage to the cemetery.
‘I was walking home from the Kotel on Shabbat morning I saw a group of Arabs building stone and concrete stairs from the Shiloah (Siloam Pool, Silwan in Arabic) via the Kidron Valley. The stairs went directly through the Jewish cemetery. I also saw that they had widened a small opening in the wall protecting the cemetery. The opening was now quite large. When I got closer, I saw that they had used stones from the area to build the stairs, many of which were gravestones from the Jewish cemetery.”
It should be noted that one of the main targets for Arab vandalism is the Mount of Olives and the thousands of Jewish gravesites located there. Gravestones are destroyed and mourners are attacked on a daily basis, requiring special security details to accompany Jews who visit the site.
Considered a holy site by international accords, it is protected by international law. Nonetheless, during the Jordanian occupation of East Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967, an estimated 38,000 gravestones were damaged. Four paved roads ran over hundreds of graves, and Jordan’s King Hussein permitted the construction of the Intercontinental Hotel on the mount, destroying some gravesites from the First Temple period. Gravestones were removed and used for paving stones, and some were taken for use as latrines in Jordanian army barracks.
There was a sharp increase in vandalism on the Mount of Olives in recent years. Some gravesites are specifically targeted for vandalism. In 2016, the gravestone of Nathan Mileikowsky, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grandfather, was destroyed.
King, very familiar with the proper authorities, turned to the municipality but got no response. He returned on Sunday with reporters and an article appeared in the Hebrew language News 4.
“For at least ten years I have been trying to get the municipal authorities to close that wall,” King said. “It should not be accessible to Jews or Arabs. It is a desecration for the cemetery to be used as a shortcut. The Arab residents also enter by way of the opening in the wall in order to throw their garbage in the cemetery directly onto the Jewish graves.”
King returned on Tuesday morning with a film crew with the intention of publicizing the desecration. When he arrived, he saw that the Arabs had poured concrete over the edges of the stones to conceal the gravestones that had been used in the stairs. The Arabs working on the stairs confronted him but King refused to be intimidated.
— Breaking Israel News (@BINAlerts) December 17, 2019
“This is not really a municipal issue,” King explained. “Cemeteries fall under the Ministry of Religion, a part of the larger Israeli government.”
“I have been living on the Mount of Olives for over two decades and I haven’t seen anything like this for more than 15 years. The tragedy is that we could have prevented this very simply by sealing the hole in the wall years ago. The government can hold concerts, ceremonies, all kinds of cultural events. But they cannot be bothered to prevent the desecration of Jewish graves.”
Yuval Segev of IDF Radio tweeted on Monday morning that an Arab man was arrested on suspicion he had broken into the Jewish cemetery and stolen gravestones in order to build stairs for his village.
תושב שטחים נעצר בחשד שפרץ לבית הקברות היהודי בהר הזיתים והשתמש בחלקי מצבות ישנים לבניית מדרגות לרווחת תושבי האזור pic.twitter.com/Equh6SjhHJ
— יובל שגב | Yuval Segev (@segev_yuval) December 16, 2019
The Arab man denied the allegations and an investigation was initiated. It is deeply disturbing that even after his arrest, construction on the stairs inside the Jewish cemetery continued.
Joshua Wander, a resident of the Mount of Olives and an activist for the Jewish community, was on hand to film King’s confrontation with the Arabs.
“The stairs are indeed on top of cemetery land, probably on Jewish graves” Wander said. “When I got there, new concrete had been poured to hide the gravestones that had been used.”
“That entire section of the cemetery is in horrible disrepair. If we expect other people to respect our places, our holy sites, our cemeteries, then we need to show our respect first. The graves are being covered with garbage which is being allowed to remain. The local Arabs are allowed to bring their sheep to graze in the cemetery. If the Jews and the Jewish government allows all this t happen, then it will only get worse.”
The Mount of Olives has messianic and religious significance in addition to being an ancient burial site. It is referred to in the book of Zechariah, when he prophesied that the mountain will play an essential part in the Messiah, splitting in two (14:4), with one half shifting south.
The Mount of Olives, adjacent to the Temple Mount, was an integral part of the Temple service. It was where the Para Adumah (red heifer), the major component needed for ritually purity, was burned. Any attack on the Jewish claim to the Temple Mount as part of their religious heritage would necessarily include an attack on the Mount of Olives.
As a site of Biblical significance, and because of its proximity to the Temple Mount, it has been used as a Jewish cemetery for over 3,000 years and contains over 150,000 gravesites, including the tombs traditionally identified with the Biblical figures Zechariah, Absalom, Haggai, and Malachi.
Religious Jews have always preferred to be buried on the Mount of Olives, since it is the place where the resurrection of the dead will begin. According to the Jewish tradition, people buried outside of Israel will have to burrow through the ground to arrive at the Mount of Olives in order to be resurrected there.