The walls have been freshly plastered and painted white, the sculpted stone window frames are filled with frosted glass and the builders are hanging spotlights from the ceiling.
The municipality of Beersheva, the capital of southern Israel, is racing to put the finishing touches to repairs of the city’s long-neglected and unused Great Mosque, built more than 100 years ago by the Ottoman rulers of what was then Palestine.
But, over the protests of Beersheva’s thousands-strong community of Muslims, the Jewish-run municipality is not planning to restore the city’s only mosque to its former glory as a place of worship. It wants to convert it into a museum.
The building’s fate now rests with the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule in the coming months on whether to give the go-ahead to the municipality or insist on the mosque’s return to local Islamic authorities from whom it was confiscated 61 years ago.
Muslim campaigners, however, are not hopeful. After seven years of foot-dragging by the judges, they fear the court will not risk setting a precedent that might force the return of dozens of other Islamic holy places seized decades ago by Israel.
“There is so much paranoia from the government, the municipality and the courts about Muslims using this mosque again,” said Nuri al Uqbi, a 67-year-old Bedouin activist in Beersheva. “It was built with money raised from the local Bedouin and we should have the right to pray in it.”
Israel’s treatment of the Great Mosque has been a major source of friction for decades with the country’s 1.3 million Palestinian citizens, and especially the 180,000 Bedouin living close to Beersheva in the southern semi-desert area known as the Negev.
Following Israel’s establishment in 1948, when Beersheva was emptied of its Palestinian population, the mosque’s status as a holy place was ignored, and officials approved its use first as a prison and then for the exhibition of archaeological finds.
The building has been unused since it was declared structurally unsound in 1991. Through the early 1990s, the mosque became distinctive chiefly for a giant menorah, a candelabrum used in Jewish religious rituals, that was mysteriously erected and left in place on the roof.
“The authorities let it become an eyesore,” said Mr al Uqbi, one of the leading campaigners for the mosque’s restoration. “The courtyard was filled with graffitied curses in Hebrew, it was strewn with rubbish, beer bottles and pigeon droppings, and it attracted drug addicts and prostitutes.”
Opposition to what Mr al Uqbi called the “desecration” of the mosque has been slow in building.
Military rule, which was imposed on the Negev’s surviving tribes of Bedouin until the early 1970s, ensured that Beersheva was mostly off-limits.
“Today, the situation is entirely different,” said Morad al Sana, a Bedouin lawyer based in the city. “There are several thousand Muslims living here and thousands more come to work, shop, use the banks and so on. But they have nowhere to pray.”
A small group, including Mr al Uqbi, first tried to pray in the mosque in 1977. When they were leaving the building, he recalled, they found police had confiscated their shoes, which, as is customary, had been left at the entrance. “I was barefoot as they arrested me for trespassing,” said Mr al Uqbi. “As I was taken away, I asked the policeman: ‘Can I have my shoes back, please?’”
Several hundred members of the Islamic Movement, the main Islamic party in Israel, tried to stage prayers at the mosque in 1997, provoking scuffles with right-wing local Jewish residents and council officials. Tipped off by police beforehand, the council had sprayed cow manure in the yard, forcing the worshippers to pray on plastic sheets.
Mr al Uqbi was arrested for a second time in 2000 after he painted “The Great Mosque of Beersheva” on its gates. He still faces the threat of jail for refusing to pay a fine of $1,200. “The walls were full of graffiti and yet no one apart from me has ever been charged,” he said.
Another campaigner, Sheikh Uda Abu Sirhan, a resident of the nearby Bedouin town of Tel Sheva, told the Haaretz newspaper that Muslims in Beersheva were desperate for the mosque’s restoration. “People pray in streets, in parking lots — it’s a disgrace, especially when they are so close to a holy site.”
The nearest mosque, he pointed out, was 15km away.
The council’s obduracy partly reflects a fear that Beersheva, which has a growing Arab population, may one day be recognised as a “bi-national city”, said Oren Yiftachel, a geography professor at the city’s Ben Gurion University.
In recent years, Beersheva’s 180,000 Jewish residents have been joined by at least 5,000 Muslims, mostly Arab professionals from the Galilee in northern Israel. The Bedouin visit from the surrounding Negev.
Mr al Sana, who works for Adalah, an Arab legal centre, pointed out that there are more than 250 synagogues in Beersheva, or one for every 700 Jewish residents. Parity with Jews would entitle the city’s Muslims to at least eight mosques, he said.
Mr al Uqbi and Adalah jointly submitted a petition to the Supreme Court in 2002 demanding the mosque be used as a place of worship again. Officials responded in 2004 that the petition was motivated not by religious conviction but by “the ultranationalist aspiration to turn back the wheels of history to the situation that prevailed before 1948.”
In short, the state’s defence is that the use of the mosque would open the door to wider Palestinian claims for a right of return, thereby threatening Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
To bolster their case, officials have cited security arguments, including that opening the mosque would create civil unrest between Jews and Arabs and that anyone climbing the minaret would have a bird’s-eye view of the army’s nearby southern headquarters.
An eight-member committee established by the government in 2003 to find a solution failed to include an Arab or Muslim representative. Its report published a year later argued that Beersheva was a Jewish town and that Muslims should pray elsewhere.
Itzhak Nevo, a philosophy professor at Ben Gurion University who testified before the committee, said Beersheva had a duty to acknowledge its Ottoman history. “The Bedouin cannot help but feel humiliated, and that their history, rights and identity are being denied,” he said. “This is not a wise policy.”
The judges have been slow to make a decision, said Mr al Sana, because they are aware it could set a precedent entitling Israel’s Palestinian citizens to reclaim many of the other Arab holy places they have been denied access to for decades.
A report published in 2004 by the Arab Human Rights Association, based in Nazareth, identified 250 places of worship, both Islamic and Christian, that had either been destroyed or made unusable since Israel’s establishment in 1948. Nearly 200 were razed in the wake of the 1948 war, but the threat of destruction hangs over many surviving places of worship too. The century-old mosque of Sarafand, on the coast near the northern city of Haifa, was bulldozed in July 2000 after local Muslims started restoring it.
Other buildings, including mosques in Tiberias and Beit Shean, have been the target of repeated arson attacks. The famous Hasan Bek mosque in Tel Aviv is regularly vandalised and was desecrated in 2005 when a pig’s head bearing the name of the Prophet was thrown into its yard.
Two historic Galilee mosques that are still standing, at Ghabsiyya and Hittin, have been left to fall into ruin surrounded by fences and razor wire. The latter was built by Saladin in the 12th century to celebrate the defeat of the Crusaders.
In Palestinian villages now re-invented as Jewish communities, such as at Ein Hod and Caesariya, mosques have been refurbished as bars or restaurants. In at least four cases, mosques have been converted into synagogues. And Jewish farming communities sometimes use remote holy places as animal pens or warehouses.
In the case of the Beersheva mosque, the court tried to settle the dispute three years ago by urging the parties to reach a compromise. It has suggested that the building be converted into an Islamic heritage centre where no prayer would take place or that it become a coexistence centre.
Both sides rejected the offers.
Adalah discovered in 2004, two years after it launched its petition, that the municipality had secretly issued a tender to convert the mosque into a museum. The court ruled the renovations could go ahead but only if they were restricted to protecting the structure.
A visit last month revealed that the municipality had ignored the injunction and was close to completing the mosque’s refurbishment as a museum.