Desecration, attacks at ancient Jewish cemetery

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 23, 2011; 2:19 AM

JERUSALEM -- A wide patch of steep hillside overlooking Jerusalem's Old City holds row after row of graves. Biblical prophets, revered rabbis and a prime minister are buried there. Yet many of the tombstones have been smashed, litter is strewn around and tethered donkeys defecate on top of graves.

The ancient cemetery is just one point of contention in the struggle for control of Jerusalem, an explosive issue in decades of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Israelis and American Jewish leaders are demanding that the Israeli government increase protection to ensure that those buried on the Mount of Olives can rest in peace.

The cemetery is believed to hold the graves of biblical prophets Haggai, Malachi and Zechariah. The list of modern Jewish figures buried there includes Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, and Nobel Prize laureate Shai Agnon.

Rabbi Avraham Kook, the chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, and Rabbi Shlomo Goren, a former chief rabbi of Israel, are also buried there.

Some Israelis claim Palestinians from surrounding east Jerusalem neighborhoods attack visitors two to three times a week, sometimes stoning funeral processions. They accuse Arabs of building illegally on top of graves, using tombstones as goalposts for soccer games and lobbing firebombs to desecrate the cemetery.

At a recent visit to the cemetery, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he's heard from hundreds of families in the U.S. who can't visit buried relatives without protection from armed guards.

"If you hear the families, the pain and the fact that they're afraid to come here, what does it say?" Hoenlein asked. "In Jerusalem, Jews can't go and visit an ancient burial site that is supposedly sacred?"

The Mount of Olives has held a holy place in Judaism since the period of the biblical First Jewish Temple more than 3,000 years ago.

It appears in the Second Book of Samuel, when King David weeps upon climbing the hill. Some Jews believe that in the end of days, the dead will be resurrected there, and Christians regard it as the place where Jesus ascended to the heavens.

At least 150,000 graves line the hill opposite the gold-capped Dome of the Rock mosque, built atop the ruins of the biblical Temples. On Friday afternoons, visitors to the cemetery can hear the Muslim prayer calls echoing across the valley from the site.

Between 1948 and 1967, the Mount of Olives was under Jordanian control. The International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim (Mount of Olives), a Jewish group, claims that during that period, 40,000 graves were destroyed, and new graves were built on top of old ones.

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