A Biblical Promenade Built on Human Remains
Al-Yusufiya Cemetery, established during Muslim rule in Jerusalem under the Ayyubid dynasty, is known as the martyrs’ cemetery, where soldiers from Palestine, Iraq, and Jordan have been laid to rest since the Six-Day War in 1967. Since 2021, Israeli authorities have actively participated in the leveling of Al-Yusufiya Cemetery and the destruction of graves to make way for a biblical park. This process includes the exhumation of graves, uprooting Palestinian identity deeply interred within the layers of history.
These actions are part of the constant structural violence directed toward Palestinians. For Israel, this involves displacing Palestinians and severing their ties to the land through the dispossession of their homes and resting places. The result is the erasure of Palestinian existence and cultural identity enacted through the enforcement of necropolitical laws that justify spatial violence against both the living and the dead.1
Al-Yusufiya Cemetery is sited just a few meters from Al-Aqsa Mosque on the eastern side of the Old City wall, adjacent to the prominent Lions’ Gate, which serves as one of the primary entrances to the Old City. For nearly 800 years, Muslims have interred their deceased in this cemetery, originally commissioned for construction in 1467. Al-Yusufiya holds profound significance for Muslims in Jerusalem, and it is recognized within Islam as the foremost site from which the deceased will be resurrected on the Day of Judgment. According to Islamic belief, on the Day of Judgment the departed will gather in Jerusalem for a final reckoning, as Jerusalem’s importance will surpass that of Mecca and Medina, and those buried in this cemetery will be the first to be resurrected.
Property of the Absentee
In 1948, when Israeli forces took control of the western part of Jerusalem and displaced Palestinian residents, they enacted a law that classified all Islamic endowment lands, including cemeteries, shrines, and mosques, as “absentee property,” bringing these sites under Israeli state jurisdiction. In 2014, the occupying authorities prohibited burials in the northern section of the cemetery and removed 20 graves of Jordanian martyrs. Through historical revisionism, the municipality now asserts that the cemetery area in question is designated as a public green space in spite of human remains that have been unearthed inside its boundaries. In the same year, Israel prohibited Palestinians from burying their kin in the cemetery and subsequently poured concrete over approximately 40 graves.2
In 2021, the cemetery became a site of renewed conflict between Palestinian residents and the Jerusalem Municipality and Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The latter announced plans to develop a national park in the north of the cemetery and erected a fence that they asserted marks the cemetery’s northern boundary. Conversely, Palestinians argued that the cemetery’s grounds extend beyond the fence. In fact, during excavations carried out as part of redevelopment efforts in the area, human remains were discovered that appeared to substantiate their claim. Despite this, a legal petition challenging this work was dismissed by the Magistrate Court. Residents of East Jerusalem persist in clandestinely burying their family members in this area, an act which can be viewed as a form of protest against the infringement of their rights to the land.3
Pour the Earth Over Me
Some of the first acts of settler sabotage within Al-Yusufiya Cemetery included the demolition of the wall and stairs at the site’s entrance. This prevented visitors to the graveyard from reliving the memories of their deceased loved ones in peace and privacy.
Ola Nabata, a 57-year-old mother to Alaa, who was buried in the cemetery in 2017, asked the Israeli soldiers to bury her next to him and pour the earth over her. Ola clung to her son’s grave and successfully prevented the occupation forces from razing his remains. The mother’s intuition, however, proved correct; officials later returned with trucks full of steel and soil to cover the remaining graves, including Alaa’s. As workers started pouring the soil, Nababta held onto the grave with all her might to prevent them from burying it.4
The act of leveling the ground materializes a relationship between the land, human remains, and elimination as signified by the bulldozer. The violation of Palestinians’ rights to the land, whether they are deceased or alive, enacts erasure of Arabic and Muslim identity in Jerusalem. The destruction and sabotage of the cemetery is part of the occupation authority’s long-term plan to systematically dismantle and excavate the historic fabric of the city.
Najeh Bakirat, the deputy director-general of the Jerusalem Waqf, explained that bulldozing is part of a broader Israeli strategy with three objectives: to eliminate the Palestinian presence, including Islamic cemeteries and residences, and replace them with Israeli parks featuring Hebrew signage; to displace Muslim residents of Jerusalem, leading many to bury their deceased outside the city, while simultaneously attracting and increasing the number of settlers in the city; and to rename public spaces and historical sites and alter the overall geographic landscape.
Bakirat anticipates that Israel’s actions will not be limited to targeting just four dunams of the Al-Yusufiya Cemetery but will extend until complete control is achieved. The Israeli Authority of Nature and Antiques has so far shown no intention of relinquishing plans for the biblical park.
While the soil continues to accept the bodies of newly martyred Palestinians, we cannot normalize the ongoing regime of violence. The techniques of settler-colonial occupation in Palestine, marked by their manipulation of both the deceased and the living, underscore the pressing need to abolish the apartheid system today more than ever. Honor them dead and alive, for Palestinians are not mere statistics. They are actively fighting for existence and equality, even when their rightful repose is disrupted.
After graves were exhumed in Al-Yusufiya Cemetery in November 2023 by Israeli authorities, Jerusalemites reburied the remains in the same place and identified the deceased with stones.
- Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 11–40. ↩︎
Jessica Buxbaum, “Picnics Alongside Graves: Jerusalem to Build Biblical Park Over Palestinian Graves,” Toward Freedom, May 20, 2022, https://towardfreedom.org/story/archives/west-asia/picnics-alongside-gravesjerusalem-
- Aseel Jundi, “Jerusalem Palestinians Fight to Preserve Cemetery Slated for Demolition,” Middle East Eye, October 29, 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/jerusalem-palestine-israel-cemetery-demolition-fight. ↩︎
- Ahmad Melhem, “Israel Demolishes Muslim Cemetery Near Al Aqsa Mosque to Build Park,” Al-Monitor, November 2, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/11/israel-demolishes-muslim-cemetery-near-al-aqsamosque-build-park#ixzz8IXvts9wV. ↩︎