Supreme Court Rejects Adalah's Petition Demanding the Protection of Muslim Holy Sites in Israel Claiming that the Definition of Specific Sites as Muslim is a “Sensitive Matter”

On 16 March 2009, after five years of litigation, the Supreme Court of Israel rejected a petition filed by Adalah on behalf of Muslim religious leaders to compel the Minister of Religious Affairs (now the National Authority of Religious Services) to promulgate regulations for the protection of Muslim holy sites in Israel, in accordance with the Protection of Holy Sites Law – 1967. Approximately 135 sacred places have been declared as holy sites, all of which are Jewish.

The court ruled that the state's commitment to designate a budget of NIS 2 million (approximately US $500,000) for the maintenance of Muslim holy sites was sufficient. The court rejected the need for the promulgation of regulations to bind various government ministries in this regard. The court explained its rejection based on the argument that defining specific sites as Muslim holy sites was a “sensitive matter.”

The meager budget committed to by the state will not be sent directly to Islamic committees for them to invest in the protection of the holy sites, but to the Israel Land Administration (ILA) to undertake this task. This is so despite the fact that over the course of the past 60 years the ILA has done nothing to prevent the desecration of Muslim holy sites and in many instances, it has played an active role in their desecration.

During a Supreme Court hearing held on the case on 9 March 2009, the Attorney General’s Office claimed to have been following a new action policy over the past two years according to which the task of maintaining holy sites was delegated to the ILA, which renovates ten sites per year. However, from the work report provided by the Attorney General’s Office, all the ILA has done is to erect a wall around these sites and hang “danger” and “no entry” signs around them, turning them into quasi military barracks.

Adalah Attorney Adel Badeer argued at the hearing that these measures do absolutely nothing to protect these holy sites, but rather contribute to their further deterioration, and potentially to their total collapse. He argued that in fact these measures amount to the desecration of the sites and harm the sensitivities of Muslims by denying access to them. He emphasized that despite the court’s acknowledgment in its decision of the miserable state of Muslim holy sites and the need to repair them, it refrained from taking the bold step of forcing the state to promulgate clear and strict regulations mandating the protection of these holy sites.

The Protection of Holy Sites Law aims to safeguard and preserve sacred places from desecration, from anything which could obstruct access to these places by followers of religious traditions, or could offend their religious sensitivities. Article 4 of the law states that, “The Minister of Religious Affairs is responsible for the implementation of the law, and is authorized, after consultation with the religious leaders, or in accordance with their advice and the agreement of the Minister of Justice, to promulgate regulations in order to implement the law.”

The Protection of Holy Sites Law requires the Minister of Religious Affairs to regulate holy sites in general and not selectively on the basis of religious grouping. Thus far, however, the Minister has used his powers in a discriminatory manner solely to promulgate regulations for Jewish holy sites. The result of this discrimination is the neglect and desecration of Muslim holy sites in Israel: many mosques and holy sites have been converted, for instance, into bars, night clubs, stores and restaurants.

Adalah submitted the petition in November 2004 in its own name and on behalf of Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish, Sheikh Kamel Rayyan, MK Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsour, and formed MK And al-Malek Dahamshe, as well as the Al-Aqsa Association for the Preservation of Muslim Holy Sites.

Case Citation:  H.C. 10532/04, Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, et. al. v. Minister of Religious Affairs, et. al. (decision delivered 16.3.09)

The Supreme Court's Decision (Hebrew)

Adalah’s Petition (Hebrew)