The Israeli government has targeted Palestinian history in Israel/Palestine since the Jewish state’s creation in 1948. Even Palestinian cemeteries have not been spared, as the dead are regularly disturbed in the name of “development” and settlement expansion. In Jerusalem, for example, the historic Mamilla cemetery has been gradually destroyed over decades to make way for commercial projects and the ironically-named Museum of Tolerance. Gravestones in the 1,400 year-old Bab al-Rahmeh cemetery, also in Jerusalem, were knocked down by Israeli authorities in 2016 to allow for the expansion of a national park. Palestinians in Jaffa are currently in court battling an investment company, in order to protect the future of the city’s last remaining Muslim cemetery.
For Israel’s settler-colonial project, these ancient cemeteries are a threat to the narrative of exclusive Jewish ownership of the region’s history, which has been used to defend expansionist designs and claims of absolute Israeli sovereignty. In order to realize these ideological goals, Israel has erased, marginalized, and even appropriated the Palestinian past, while creating, excavating, and selectively preserving Jewish artifacts and cultural properties.
True to Israel’s settler-colonial logic of ethnic domination, the political dimensions of cultural property inform Israeli practice in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). Israeli NGO Kerem Navot monitors Israeli land policy in the oPt. This week, the organization released new research on Israeli settler grave sites, based on aerial imagery and official Israeli data. According to the group’s findings, over 40% of Israeli settler graves in the West Bank are in cemeteries built on private Palestinian land.
Many of these cemeteries are located a considerable distance from Israeli colonies themselves, with some as far as a mile away. While this may seem odd at first blush, there is a solid logic behind the settler’s actions, based on overlapping religious and political grounds. As the author of the Kerem Navot report, Dror Etkes, argues, the placement of the burial sites is part of a “long term investment” by the settlers. According to Jewish religious tradition, graves are sacred ground and must remain undisturbed. If, in the event of a two-state solution, for example, the sites were to be returned to Palestinian land owners there would be civil unrest among religious settlers in the oPt and beyond. Settlers are well aware that Israeli politicians prefer to avoid this fact. In this way, constructing dispersed grave sites is an insurance policy protecting Israeli colonies from potential evacuation.
This, however, is not the only explanation for how these cemeteries have been built. The grave sites also appear to advance broader colonial designs on the part of the Israeli state. To disturb the cemeteries would mean undermining a settler-colonial project meant to entrench Israeli domination. Indeed, as Kerem Navot’s research indicates, since the eruption of the first Palestinian intifada in the 1980s, the number of settler burial sites in the West Bank has expanded at a considerable pace. According to historian Idith Zertal and journalist Akiva Eldar, this explosion occurred because settlers and their political supporters in the Knesset saw Israel’s future in the oPt as threatened by the popular uprising and ensuing Oslo “peace process.” This state involvement and investment in the colonial cemetery project is further evidenced by the fact that, since the first intifada, fourteen cemeteries have been constructed under the auspices of colonial authorities and thus with their endorsement, whether passive or explicit.
Alongside the construction of settlements and the arbitrary expropriation of land, the creation, excavation, and preservation of Jewish cultural sites, cemeteries included, serve as political weapons designed to create facts on the ground. In Israel/Palestine, even burying the dead can serve the colonial enterprise.