Construction (illustrative)
Construction (illustrative)Israel news file (photo)

A group of Arabs joined by European human rights activists have joined forces to demand that the United Nations halt the building of a Jewish "Museum of Tolerance" on a plot of land they say is an ancient Muslim cemetery.

This is just the latest in a series of attacks made on the project, which is run by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, since 2004. Islamic groups and various Arabs have complained that the museum is slated to be built on the Ma'aman Allah (also known as Mamilla) cemetery. They say the burial site contains thousands of graves and dates back hundreds of years.  Some gravestones are present today in the area.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center replied to the Arab outcry by saying the museum would be built adjacent to the cemetery, on a plot which is currently a parking lot. The Center said the parking lot, which was built 50 years ago, was not protested at the time of construction.

Remains re-interred

Approximately 60 Arabs have signed a petition given to the UN High Commission on Human Rights, among other UN bodies. In it, petitioners complain that hundreds of graves have been destroyed and bodies and remains scattered.  They say the project is an international human rights violation. They demand the project be halted and the area declared a protected site. However, any UN decision would be symbolic, and not legally binding on Israel.

While human remains have been found on the premises, they have been extracted and re-interred on the outskirts of the construction site.

In October 2008, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled the building could commence. Israel Antiquities Authority chief excavator for the site, Gideon Suleimani, told the court that he believes the site was a cemetery in use a thousand years ago, and was full of graves. He recommended an excavation be done prior to construction, but the court did not reflect his testimony in their decision.

Award-winning architect Frank Gehry withdrew from the project in January, but other architects working on the museum said the decision was not related to the graveyard controversy.

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem has allowed building over gravesites in the past, according to a report by the Associated Press.