Plan to reopen mosque pits Muslim against Jew Israel's Arab minority trying to reclaim its religious institutions

November 06, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEERSHEBA, Israel -- The central mosque of this once-Arab town stands amid pine trees and rosebushes, a padlock on its door. Built by the Turks in 1906 and angled toward the holy city of Mecca, the mosque still bears the Ottoman sultan's stamp above its door.

The stone structure with its minaret and arched windows has not been used as a place of Muslim worship since 1948, when Israeli forces captured the sleepy desert town during the Israeli War of Independence.

Today, local Muslims want to reopen the mosque, but Jewish city officials have opposed the plan. The dispute pits leaders of the majority Jewish city against its minority Muslim citizens. But the conflict represents more than a civic spat.

It reflects a new nationalist trend among Israel's Arab minority to reclaim its religious institutions. At the same time, it reflects the double standard Israel often employs with regard to its Jewish and Arab citizens.

Unlike the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Arabs living within Israel's borders are citizens of the Jewish state. But in the years since statehood, numerous studies have documented a disparity between treatment of Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens.

Muslims in Beersheba view the mosque initiative as an issue of religious rights. But the city doesn't recognize the building as a religious site. For 40 years, the city operated the building as a museum for archaeological finds.

The museum has been closed for six years because of a lack of money, but since the Muslim move to restore it as a mosque, the city has come up with $70,000 for the museum.

Last summer, Eli Boker, a city councilman, dumped cow manure on the mosque lawn hours before Muslims held a prayer rally there.

Boker said last week that reopening the mosque would only bring more Arabs to the city.

"Beersheba is a place of the Jew, only the Jew," said Boker, a Jew who emigrated to Israel from Tunisia in 1954.

In the midst of the dispute, Beersheba's mayor, David Bonfeld, declared that Beersheba is "a Jewish city," and that he had the facts to prove it, said Amnon Yosef, the city spokesman. Of the city's 147,900 residents, about 4,200 are Arabs or of other ethnic origin, according to 1995 government census figures.

"He didn't speak from racism," the spokesman said of the mayor.

Yosef defends the city's plan to renovate the mosque for uses other than as a place of Muslim worship.

"We didn't ask to demolish it, but to reconstruct it and honor it because it used to be a house of prayer, and we'll keep honoring our uncles," he said, referring to the familial tie between Arab and Jew through their common biblical father, Abraham. "We want it to be a place that Jews and Arabs can come together."

Yosef says the mosque's proximity to an Israeli army base makes its return as a mosque problematic. An army spokesman said the proposal has not come before the military. But the former curator said the museum closed the minaret to the public because of concerns over its view of the military base below.

Shahda Ibn Bari, an Arab lawyer who supports the mosque renovation, said the city's Muslim minority must travel to mosques in neighboring Arab towns; devout Muslims pray five times a day.

The communities surrounding Beersheba are populated by descendants of Bedouin tribes that roamed the Negev desert until Israel relocated most of them to seven towns in the 1960s.

"We have some hundred families who live in Beersheba, doctors who work in the hospital, teachers who teach in the Negev, more than 400 Arab students in the university, " said Ibn Bari. "We have a lot of Arabs who became citizens and vote in the city."

Gershom Gorenberg, a columnist for Israel's English-language magazine, the Jerusalem Report, identified another issue that concerns Israelis.

"Asking for the restitution of any pre-1948 Arab property touches deep Israeli fear that the refugees of 1948 will reclaim all they left behind, that the repressed map of Palestine will reveal itself," Gorenberg wrote. "But the Negev Bedouin aren't Palestinian refugees. They're Israeli citizens of the Muslim faith and are pressing their rights as a religious community to a sanctified structure."

If a similar dispute occurred over a synagogue, Gorenberg wrote, Jews worldwide would be "outraged."

Elie Rekhess, an expert on Israeli Arabs at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies in Tel Aviv, said the dispute in Beersheba is part of an Islamic movement to regain control of holy places.

But it also underscores the growing frustration of Bedouins who feel they have been treated as second-class citizens.

In the early part of the century, Beersheba was a caravan stop for nomadic Bedouins. Like many Arab towns, Beersheba came under Israeli rule after 1948. Residents fled or were forced out.

The Negev was a favored site of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who urged Israelis to settle there and make "the desert flower."

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