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Grave situation, as youth vandalism rises in Jerusalem

Amid peace talks, holy site tombstones and visitors targeted


by Josh Fleet, The Media Line

October 10, 2013 | 11:29 am

The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem

The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem

This story originally ran on themedialine.org.

The Mount of Olives, a 2.2-mile ridge of three mountains to the east of Jerusalem’s Old City, is a holy site for Jews and Christians. It’s dotted with countless churches and is home to the world’s largest Jewish cemetery, with approximately 150,000 graves.

Three miles from here is the Protestant Cemetery of Mount Zion, where some of Jerusalem’s most influential Christian leaders from the 18th and 19th centuries are buried.

In recent weeks, both sites have been attacked, most recently at the Protestant cemetery, where tombstones topped with crosses were toppled by unknown vandals, leaving religious leaders worried about the state of relations among their Palestinian and Israeli constituents, even as renewed peace talks in the region are underway.

That the perpetrators are believed to be adolescents complicates matters further. Four Jewish youths were arrested following the vandalism on Mount Zion, but all were released when their alibi -- that they were visiting a cistern for ritual purposes -- checked out.

Search for Common Ground (SCG) is an American non-governmental organization that looks for peaceful, collaborative solutions to violent conflict and has 50 offices in 30 countries. In Israel, they have tracked every reported instance of vandalism and physical violence on holy sites since 2011. It’s unclear if such attacks are on the rise, or business as usual.

“There’s no real pattern,” Kevin Merkelz, a project coordinator for the organization in Jerusalem, told The Media Line. “Our data goes up and down. There’s troughs and there’s peaks.”

In 2013, SCG has counted five attacks on cemeteries in Jerusalem — Christian, Jewish and Muslim sites included. Compared with two attacks each in the years 2011 and 2012, attacks certainly seem to be trending upward.

Still, the jury is out. One Israeli radio station, Arutz Sheva, published a story in early September saying there was a “marked reduction” of vandalism and physical attacks on visitors to the Mount of Olives cemetery.

“There used to be many, many attacks,” Harvey Schwartz, co-chairman of the Israel branch of the International Committee for the Preservations of Har Hazeitim, as the Mount of Olives is known in Hebrew told The Media Line. “The statistics at that time seemed to show that there was a reduction of attacks -- not an elimination, a reduction. Shortly after that article came out, there was an increase in attacks.”

During the recent Jewish holiday of Sukkot, for example, the preservation committee received reports of cemetery visitors being attacked with rocks, and earlier this week Shwartz got a call about another incident. A group of Arabs, he said, smashed the visitor’s car window with bricks, one of which landed in the car, next to the man’s young child. “Six inches away,” Schwartz explained.

“Everybody talks about stones and rocks. No, these are big bricks that are used to smash car windows,” he said, adding that when Jews carry out so-called “price-tag” attacks on Muslim and Christian sites, the Israeli government responds quickly, but when Jewish visitors to a Jewish holy site are attacked, the response takes much longer. The “price-tag” perpetrators are often young, disaffected Jews from communities in areas that Israel acquired in 1967 with extremist political views. They are angry about what they perceive as Israel’s concessions to the Palestinians.

“Those attacks (by Palestinians) are clearly acts of terrorism, very different from painting ‘price tag’ on a door,” Shwartz said. “They don’t seem to be paying a similar amount of attention to physical attacks against Israelis and Jews. That’s very worrisome. When those acts are committed against Jews, those acts should be called terrorism. That’s what it is.”

Schwartz indicated that there may be a correlation between the increase of attacks on holy sites and the renewed peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and said that his committee deplores vandalism of any cemetery.

“Jewish, Arab, Christian, non-denominational -- no cemetery should ever be vandalized or attacked,” he said.

Jeff Taube, who serves with Schwartz as co-chair of Mount of Olives Israel committee and is Director of the Israel Office for the Zionist Organization of America, explained that vandalism within the Har HaZeitim cemetery itself – which included desecrated tombstones much like those at the Protestant Cemetery of Mt. Zion -- has all but been eliminated since 142 cameras were installed to monitor the site 24/7. However, Jews are now being attacked on the drive toward the complex – where the security precautions don’t reach.

“When you squeeze a balloon in your hand on one side, it’s gonna pop on the other side,” he told The Media Line.

Some preliminary steps are being taken within the Israeli parliament to address this issue, including various committee hearings and a proposed bill. But the topic is a sensitive one for the government to deal with, as much of the vandalism and stone-throwing -- at Jewish, Christian and Muslim sites -- is carried out by boys between the ages of 12 and 14.

“I don’t know whether I would like to see adolescents thrown in jail with hardened criminals,” Taube said. “Perhaps what I would like to see is some system of accountability with the parents.”

At Search for Common Ground, Kevin Merkelz is coordinating the Universal Code on Holy Sites project, which lays out a plan for the protection of all sacred spots around the world. He says the documented attacks, by and large, do seem to be coming from young people.

But while it doesn’t offer a solution the youth vandalism problem, the Universal Code, by “codifying issues of definitions, access, education, sharing, establishment, reconstruction, memoriali­zation, expropriation, excavation, research and monitoring of holy sites,” could go a long way in avoiding these kinds of incidents all together.

“May it inspire the hearts and minds of all who read and support it to advance the path of peace, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation,” it reads.

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