Even in death, Palestinians suffer obscene indignities

The latest desecration is taking place at al-Yusufiyah cemetery, a centuries-old Muslim graveyard in occupied Jerusalem.

Last week, a Palestinian mother clung onto her son's grave as Israeli forces tried to forcibly remove her. [Mostafa Alkharouf-Anadolu Agency]

Even in death, Palestinians, it seems, have no respite from Israeli officials intent on stripping them of their dignity and humanity.

The latest desecration is taking place at al-Yusufiyah cemetery, a centuries-old Muslim graveyard in occupied Jerusalem.

Last week, Israeli machinery began razing the ground in and adjacent to the cemetery to make way for a so-called “Biblical Trail,” a string of theme parks in the south of the Old City.

This past Sunday, an Israeli court upheld the “clearance” work. This, despite the remains – reportedly of Jordanian soldiers – having already been disturbed and exposed in a section of the cemetery Israeli authorities have claimed is “unauthorised” – whatever that means.

That sordid violation triggered understandable panic among Palestinians that their interred loved ones would suffer the same obscene fate.

Israeli assurances that “authorised burial sites” – whatever that means – would not be harmed have done little to mollify Palestinian fears.

Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, told the Reuters news agency that the park, scheduled to open in mid-2022, is a sacrilegious assault on the ancient cemetery.

“The graves of human beings cannot be violated no matter the gender, nationality or religion,” he said.

Pictures and video from the scene show digger trucks busy levelling land within the shadow of the “authorised” Muslim gravesites.

One Palestinian mother was having none of it.

Dressed in black, Ola Nababteh, draped herself over her son’s grave like a human shroud. It was, at once, an act of defiance and resistance, fuelled by a mother’s love and instinct to protect a son she lost four years ago and still mourns.

“They keep threatening to bulldoze the graves,” Nababteh said. “This is the pinnacle of brutality.”

Predictably, Nababteh’s determination to protect the sanctity of her son’s grave was met with overwhelming force. Scores of well-armed Israeli police surrounded Nababteh as she sobbed while holding tight onto her son’s gravestone, a red tin filled with dried flowers at the head of the white marker. All the while, bulldozers hovered nearby.

A young Palestinian woman tried to console Nababteh and intervene. She was brushed aside as Israeli police wrested Nababteh’s arms from her son’s large, plain tomb.

Nababteh defied police as best she could, resting her body, for a time, against the gravestone. Later, she stood. A police officer grabbed her by the neck and throat, and pushed her away. Wielding batons, police also fired stun grenades and skunk water cannon to disperse worried Palestinians who had gathered close by.

Nababteh is undeterred.

“I will continue to stay with my son 24 hours a day,” she said. “Even if they kill me, I will not leave here. I will not allow my son’s grave to be removed.”

Ultimately, the state of Israel will decide the fate of Nababteh and her son’s resting place – international law, human rights codes and decency be damned.

Imprisoned Palestinians exercise little, if any, agency over their lives and futures, including, apparently, where they can and cannot be buried.

But, of course, Arieh King, deputy mayor of Jerusalem, does not see it that way. He told Reuters that police forcibly removed Nababteh for her own safety and implied that she should be grateful for the excavations at and near the cemetery since the new park will provide Palestinians easier access to the Old City.

This is the same King that the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, described as being “best known” for having “been accused of racism” after – among other detestable things – his election campaign signs compared the Muslim call to prayer with a rooster’s crow and for ejecting Palestinian families from their old, beloved homes in the besieged Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.

I suspect that Nababteh and the other Palestinian families whose kin are buried at al-Yusufiyah cemetery know that, given King’s ugly record, the deputy mayor does not have their safety at heart and are unlikely to express gratitude for his, uh, hospitality and a park.

The threats and coercion facing Palestinians watching over al-Yusufiyah cemetery are a microcosm of the “present circumstances” in occupied Palestine that Irish author, Sally Rooney, alluded to when she decided last month not to permit her latest work of fiction to be translated by an Israeli publisher into Hebrew.

It is one of a litany of losses, threats, indignities and obscenities that Palestinians have long had to endure.

Rooney’s small but considered expression of solidarity with Palestinians like Nababteh prompted her quick-draw detractors to rush to print and the airwaves to belittle her, to deride her, to ridicule her and to condemn her with a kind of adolescent glee usually reserved for delinquent prime ministers and presidents, not accomplished 30-year-old authors.

Rooney’s resolve to make visible the too-often invisible pain and suffering of Palestinians and the reaction to it attracted a lot of attention because she is a somebody.

Nababteh is a nobody – a Palestinian nobody, to boot. Outside Al Jazeera, Reuters and a few Middle East-based news sites, what happened to her inside al-Yusufiyah cemetery did not register a jot among the news and opinion page editors who unleashed an army of reporters and rabid columnists to dissect and largely eviscerate Rooney (a somebody) for standing by – metaphorically-speaking – Nababteh (a nobody).

In their obnoxious calculus, Rooney’s gesture of support for Palestinians “in their struggle for freedom, justice and equality” warrants their wrath and disapproval and not the losses, threats, indignities and obscenities that triggered it.

Israel will always be innocent. Sally Rooney will always be a foolish dupe for even mildly challenging Israel’s “innocence”. And Ola Nababteh, a Palestinian, will always be a forgettable nobody.

Silent and absent, too, are the glib politicians who have remained so expectedly mum after Israel announced last week that several Palestinian human rights groups – who have documented the outrages and abuses visited again and again and again on Palestinians – are havens for “terrorists”.

Slowly, unmistakably, Israel is, in effect, declaring any Palestinian who does anything, at any time to expose, record or resist the state-sanctioned persecution of Palestinians in occupied Palestine to be a “terrorist” who can be raided, arrested and jailed for as long as Israel wants to lock them up – often in solitary confinement.

I am surprised Nababteh was not arrested as a “terrorist” for daring to save her son’s grave from possible demolition.

She, like every Palestinian family with a loved one entombed at al-Yusufiyah cemetery, will have to rely on the word of an accused “racist” deputy mayor with a fondness for kicking out Palestinians from their homes to make room for a lot of intransigent settlers and a state that, more or less, considers most Palestinians to be “terrorists” that the graveyard will go untouched – for the time being.

Call me a foolish dupe or worse if you must, but Ola Nababteh and other grieving Palestinian families have good reason to remain unconvinced and on guard.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.