The Right to Pray in the Big Mosque in Beer el-Sebe (Beer Sheva).

HCJ 7311/02, Association for Support and Defense of Bedouin Rights in Israel, et. al. v. The Municipality of Beer Sheva, et. al.

Petition filed in 8/02 on behalf of the Association for Support and Defense of Bedouin Rights in Israel, the Islamic Committee in the Naqab, 23 Palestinian citizens of Israel, and in Adalah's own name against the Municipality of Beer el-Sabe (Beer Sheva), the Development Authority, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and the Minister of Science, asking the Court to order the respondents to allow Muslims to pray in the Big Mosque in Beer el-Sabe - the city's only mosque. From 1906-1948, the building was used as a mosque; after the establishment of the State, the mosque was used as a court and prison, and later as a museum. Since 1991, it has stood empty and neglected. In Beer el-Sabe today there are around 259 synagogues for the 180,000 Jewish residents of the town, or one synagogue for every 700 Jewish residents. Approximately 5,000 Muslims live in Beer el-Sabe; by this ratio, the Municipality should offer its Muslim population at least eight mosques. The petition argued that free access to the mosque is protected by freedom of religion and the right to dignity. At a hearing in 5/03, the state committed to establishing an inter-ministerial committee to examine the issue.

In 9/03, the Prime Minister's Office submitted eight proposed names for the inter-ministerial committee. All representatives proposed came from the Prime Minister's Office (Chair), the Ministry of Internal Security, the Ministry of Interior the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Education, the Israel Lands Administration, and the General Security Service; none was Arab or Muslim. In 10/03, Adalah challenged the composition of the committee, and in response the Prime Minister's Office stated that it would include one representative of the Muslim community. The AG's Office then informed the Court that the committee was finalized, without any Muslim or Arab representative.

In 1/04, Adalah learned that the Beer el-Sabe Municipality published a bid (tender) for contractors to perform structural building work on the renovation of the Big Mosque, seemingly in order to convert it into a museum. In response, later in 1/04, Adalah filed a motion for an injunction to the Supreme Court requesting that it enjoin the Municipality from continuing with the bid and from making any changes that may alter the building's use as a mosque, pending a final decision on the petition. Adalah argued that the Municipality's action constituted a contempt of court, given that such structural changes would be in direct contravention of the Court's 5/03 decision to establish a committee to make recommendations concerning the possibility of re-opening the mosque for prayer. The Municipality claimed that the work that it sought was solely intended to preserve the building. At a Supreme Court hearing held on the motion in 2/04, the Court ordered the Municipality to maintain the status quo, to limit any work on the building to that which is necessary for its upkeep, and to refrain from making any further changes or additions.

The committee released its report in 9/04, recommending that the Big Mosque remain closed for prayer. The report stated that Beer el-Sabe is a Jewish town, and therefore the question of the Big Mosque differs from that of mosques in mixed cities, adding that the committee was unconvinced of the need of Muslims to pray in this specific mosque. The committee also suggested that the Muslim population should go to pray in one of the surrounding towns. In response to the committee's recommendations, Beer el-Sabe Municipality emphasized that the issue of "public safety and security" must also be taken into account, adopting the position of the Israel police force that, if permission were granted to restore the building as a mosque, a conflict would inevitably ensue between the town's Muslim and Jewish communities.

At a hearing in 1/05, Adalah countered that the committee was advocating for the perpetration of discrimination against Muslims in violation of the rights to freedom of religion, freedom of worship and dignity for Arab Muslim citizens. Adalah also stressed the lack of a Muslim or Arab on the committee. During the hearing, the Court criticized the fact that not a single Arab Muslim nor any of the petitioners had been appointed to the committee, adding that what the state had done was unjust, as the issue relates to the rights of the Arab minority in Beer el-Sabe. The Court rejected the state's request to dismiss the petition, as well as the solution proposed by the AG to maintain the status quo. The Court suggested that the petitioners and respondents reconsider their positions and reach an agreement involving the designation of the building as a cultural and social center for use by the Muslim community in Beer el-Sabe, except for the purpose of praying. The two parties were asked to respond within 60 days.

In 2/05, the Municipality filed its response to the Court, stating its rejection of the proposal to open the Mosque as an Islamic cultural center. The municipality insisted that the Mosque should be opened as a museum. Adalah's position is that Beer el-Sabe Municipality's response is racist, and shows no respect for the Muslim community of Beer el-Sabe or its heritage. As Adalah contended in its own response to the Court submitted earlier in 2/05, the rights of religious minorities must be respected under domestic and international law, and the Big Mosque must therefore be opened as a place of worship for the 5,000 Muslim residents of Beer el-Sabe and approximately 150,000 Muslims in the Naqab.

In 1/06, the Court issued a second proposal during a hearing suggesting that the site be converted to a museum of Islamic culture. The Municipality was ordered to respond in 60 days, after which Adalah would have a further 60 days to respond to the Municipality's position.

In 1/07, Adalah rejected a suggestion made by the Supreme Court to open the mosque as an Islamic museum and insisted that it should be opened for prayer and worship. Adalah argued that not opening the Big Mosque for prayer and worship infringes the dignity and the rights of Muslims from Beer el-Sabe to respect their holy sites and to worship. In 2/07, the Supreme Court issued an order nisi demanding that the Beer el-Sabe Municipality and Attorney General give their reasons why the Big Mosque in Beer el-Sabe should not be opened for prayer and worship.

H.C. 7311/02, Association for Support and Defense of Bedouin Rights in Israel, et. al. v. The Municipality of Beer Sheva, et. al., (case pending).