Mosques in Palestine - A New Endangered Species!

 Palestinian Cultural Heritage is not limited to a specific religious group or chronological framework like most source countries of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It encompasses an incredible diachronic and multi-cultural spectrum of cultural expressions. This ranges from tangible cultural heritage, which includes:

movable cultural heritage (paintings, sculptures, coins, manuscripts)
immovable cultural heritage (monuments, archaeological sites)

And also encompasses intangible cultural heritage expressed through:
oral traditions, performing arts, rituals

As well as natural heritage seen in:
natural sites with cultural aspects such as cultural landscapes, physical, biological or geological formations

This cultural wealth is embedded in Palestinian identity through the ages. Its rich past can be visualised as a mosaic of colourful little stones, each with its function and place; it is the result of religious variety and a strong diachronic and omnipresent multi-culturalism.

In this article, I present a collation of concerns on the situation of Palestinian Cultural Heritage at Hebron al-Khalil with a focus on the Ibrahemi Mosque. This city boasts remains from the Canaanite culture of the Bronze Age ca. 3,500 B.C.E, through the early historic ages, the Roman and Christian periods, the Middle Ages, and all the way to our era. Yet, this diachronic multi-cultural past is denied and treated with selectivity with regard to its value and identity, both in theory and in practice. Selectivity mostly effects restrictions to its current Muslim identity and religious practices as linked to the Ibrahemi Mosque.
 Today, the story of Hebron and its monuments is attempted to be re-written through a number of events and actions, which constitute violations of the full spectrum of Cultural and other Fundamental Human Rights related to the existence of Palestinian Identity and Palestinian Cultural Heritage. The recent decision of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, declares that the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, both of which are in the Palestinian Territories and under the auspices of the PNA and the Palestinian Antiquities Authority, though under Israeli control according to Oslo accords, are to be added to the list of Israel's 'national' heritage sites that the government plans to promote. It is reported and useful to retain that this decision was promulgated during a cabinet meeting in the northern town of Tel Hai, where the Prime Minister precise that rightist religious party Shas persuaded him to add the two sites to the list. The process and motivation for these actions is recounted in Mr. Netanyahu's words:

"Our existence depends not only on the IDF or our economic resilience - it is anchored in...the national sentiment that we will bestow upon the coming generations and in our ability to justify our connection to the land,".

Similar intense religious and nationalistic statements, supported by the annexation and physical intervention on key cultural and archaeological sites, are by no means new for Israel. Its systematisation, as reported by Israeli archaeologists begins shortly after the 1967 war and the annexation of the Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem. The Palestinian Territories are interesting 'culturally' and Israel has heightened awareness and appreciation on the potential of culture. The most recent statistics on the number of archaeological sites mapped within the Palestinian Territories, record the identification of 5400 archaeological sites. Already, 900 sites have been excavated by Israel implementing on the ground the policy of cultural appreciation.

The case of the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Ibrahemi Mosque in al-Khalil merits special attention. This is due to its perception, state and use as an 'active monument' since 1206, of cultural and religious importance, which elevates it to the status of 'living heritage'. This is to be differentiated from other types of heritage, such as the local archaeological site of Tell Rumeida whose activities seized with the end of the Canaanite culture.

Tradition holds that the Cave of the Patriarchs is was the first plot of land that Abraham the Patriarch bought, and where he and his family tomb lies today. The first enclosure to the caves was built under the auspices of Herod the Great. Under the Byzantine Empire, a basilica was built on the spot, later ruined by the Persians in 614 C.E. Upon the remains of the Christian Basilica, the Ibrahemi Mosque was built in 637. The Ummayads equally contributed significantly to its restoration after severe earthquakes. The Crusaders recaptured the site in 1100 and turned it into a Church and in 1188 Salâh Ad-Dîn Al-Ayyûbî recaptured it and turned it into a Mosque with limited access for Christians to worship. In the Mamluk period, important works were undertaken to turn it into a proper Mosque and Jews were hence forbidden to enter. As known to date, a Jewish synagogue has never existed on the spot. Since 1967 around 3/4 of the Mosque was confiscated and benches and other ornaments were added gradually to transform it into a synagoguial space. Although to the Jewish faith it constitutes a Holy Place, the investment is limited and only recent.
From this very brief outline of major activities, it is seen that there have always been shared and conflicting interests in the maintenance and preservation of the character of this site, claimed by all three monotheistic religions in their efforts of self-presentation. Its status has followed that of the two major occupying religions, Christianity and Islaam both of which were eager to impose a specific religious character. The most tolerant period was the Mamluk with limited Christian access inside the Mosque. The Mamluks forbade Jews from entering the site, only allowing them as close as the 5th step on a staircase at the southeast, but after some time this was increased to the 7th step.

Yet, proportionately, most works and expenses undertaken, as well as 'duration' past and current with regard to religious heritage is strongly in favour of the Muslim community as attested to by 14 centuries of history. The mosque also acquired further importance during time as a community charitable centre. It came to include a school, a dike, a drinking fountain, a hospital for the mentally disabled and a mail centre on its grounds that were constructed during the Mamluk period. Hebron today is a city which boasts a strong Muslim population and the Ibrahemi Mosque is under the auspices of the Islamic Waqf, as other holy sites in Palestine.

Israel continues to deny the cultural and religious significance of the Mosque, in its efforts to assimilate it to its national agenda. This situation in Hebron today with regard to Muslim monuments and holy places is in constant deterioration. It reminds us of the events of 2007.

As reported:

'The settlers, under the protection of the Israeli army, stormed the two places then took the furniture out in the street and threatened to burn it during a coming Jewish holiday. Aqtab mosque and the nearby Islamic Waqf offices are closed by the army since five years were the army do not allow the Palestinian residents from praying in the at mosque in the same time soldiers allow Israeli settlers from attacking and destroying the mosque in order to take it and turn it into a Jewish synagogue.'

The current agenda of Israel is to create a national sentiment through ground actions of presence to justify its connection to the land under occupation. This misallocation of force and active cleansing of targeted cities and sites that preserve its local character are assaults against Cultural Heritage and the Right to Culture. This further inhibits the practice of fundamental Human Rights, such as the Freedom of Religion and the Right to Development. This applies to both the Christian and Muslim populations of Palestine. From the example of al-Khalil it is demonstrated that the targeting of Cultural Heritage is a burning Humanitarian issues for the Palestinians which merits action and we encourage that the preponderant culture of impunity that Israel benefits from is levered so that the damages are halted and that Palestinian Cultural Heritage may survive.

Lydia Evdoxiadi Verniory is a Cultural Heritage Consultant. She advises states on promoting and protecting their national cultural heritage.