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Israel's tolerance museum sparks protests

Hundreds of Palestinians have marched through the streets of Jerusalem to protest plans to build a tolerance museum atop a centuries-old Muslim cemetery.
Image: Palestinians demonstrate construction of a Museum of Tolerance
Palestinians and Arab-Israelis demonstrate against the planned construction of a Museum of Tolerance on the site of an ancient Muslim graveyard on Thursday. Yoav Lemmer / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hundreds of Palestinians marched through the streets of Jerusalem Thursday to protest plans to build a museum because part of it would be sited atop part of a centuries-old Muslim cemetery.

The Museum of Tolerance is intended to promote understanding in a city divided by ethnic and religious rivalries, but protesters say building it over gravesites does anything but. Several Muslim groups opposed the project but the Israeli Supreme Court overturned their court appeal last week, saying there had been a busy parking lot on the site since 1960, with no objections filed.

The protesters, many wearing traditional black and white checkered keffiyeh headdresses, marched peacefully from east Jerusalem to the proposed site, just west of the walled Old City but voiced heated sentiments.

"To go and to kill the people another time after their death is criminal," said Dr. Ahmed Kanam, one of the protesters at the site.

The court did seek to address the demands of Muslims by giving contractors 60 days to agree with the Israel Antiquities Authority on a way to either remove the deceased for reburial or install a barrier between the graves and a future building foundation to avoid disturbing the remains.

The cemetery is 300 to 400 years old, according to the court, but fell out of use after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Crumbling gravestones are still visible across the street from the construction site. One of them was daubed with graffiti reading "death to Arabs."

Muslim protesters found an unlikely ally in their fight against the court; Ultra-orthodox Jews, who don't usually side with Arabs, are active in preserving graves, often interfering with construction projects.

The museum is being built by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based Jewish organization. The Weisenthal Center says the purpose of the museum is to promote understanding in a city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. It is scheduled to have a conference center, theater and museums for both adults and children.