The walls have been freshly plastered and painted white, the sculpted stone window frames are filled with frosted glass and the builders are hanging spotlights from the ceiling.A museum of what exactly?
The municipality of Beersheva, the capital of southern Israel, is racing to put the finishing touches to repairs of the city’s long-neglected and unused Great Mosque, built more than 100 years ago by the Ottoman rulers of what was then Palestine.
But, over the protests of Beersheva’s thousands-strong community of Muslims, the Jewish-run municipality is not planning to restore the city’s only mosque to its former glory as a place of worship. It wants to convert it into a museum.
The building’s fate now rests with the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule in the coming months on whether to give the go-ahead to the municipality or insist on the mosque’s return to local Islamic authorities from whom it was confiscated 61 years ago.
Muslim campaigners, however, are not hopeful. After seven years of foot-dragging by the judges, they fear the court will not risk setting a precedent that might force the return of dozens of other Islamic holy places seized decades ago by Israel.
“There is so much paranoia from the government, the municipality and the courts about Muslims using this mosque again,” said Nuri al Uqbi, a 67-year-old Bedouin activist in Beersheva. “It was built with money raised from the local Bedouin and we should have the right to pray in it.”......
.........Following Israel’s establishment in 1948, when Beersheva was emptied of its Palestinian population, the mosque’s status as a holy place was ignored, and officials approved its use first as a prison and then for the exhibition of archaeological finds.....
Other buildings, including mosques in Tiberias and Beit Shean, have been the target of repeated arson attacks. The famous Hasan Bek mosque in Tel Aviv is regularly vandalised and was desecrated in 2005 when a pig’s head bearing the name of the Prophet was thrown into its yard.
Two historic Galilee mosques that are still standing, at Ghabsiyya and Hittin, have been left to fall into ruin surrounded by fences and razor wire. The latter was built by Saladin in the 12th century to celebrate the defeat of the Crusaders.
In Palestinian villages now re-invented as Jewish communities, such as at Ein Hod and Caesariya, mosques have been refurbished as bars or restaurants. In at least four cases, mosques have been converted into synagogues. And Jewish farming communities sometimes use remote holy places as animal pens or warehouses.
In the case of the Beersheva mosque, the court tried to settle the dispute three years ago by urging the parties to reach a compromise. It has suggested that the building be converted into an Islamic heritage centre where no prayer would take place or that it become a coexistence centre.
Both sides rejected the offers.
Adalah discovered in 2004, two years after it launched its petition, that the municipality had secretly issued a tender to convert the mosque into a museum. The court ruled the renovations could go ahead but only if they were restricted to protecting the structure.
A visit last month revealed that the municipality had ignored the injunction and was close to completing the mosque’s refurbishment as a museum.
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