In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel destroyed an 800-year-old neighbourhood that had belonged to the Ottoman Empire for centuries. Now Turkey wants that hotly contested land back, and is lobbying for regional support for the initiative.
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Maghariba, or Moroccan Quarter, was a centuries-old bustling neighbourhood in the heart of Jerusalem. That was until 1967. When the war broke out between Israel and Arab states, the Israeli army erased the entire area, knocking down houses and shops with bulldozers.
The 800-year-old neighbourhood existed next to the Western Wall, the last remains of the Temple of Solomon, in East Jerusalem. Israeli forces flattened it ruthlessly, turning the entire area into a prayer pavilion for Jewish worshippers.
Although the Maghariba neighbourhood has been largely forgotten by the Western world, it is remembered by Palestinians. The area's history is equally well-remembered several thousand kilometres away, in Turkey.
In early May, the Turkish government hosted a two-day global conference to recall the role of the Ottoman Waqf, a charitable trust that ran properties under the Ottoman Empire. And the Maghariba was one of the Ottoman Waqf's possessions.
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami el Hamdallah, top government officials from Jordan and Morocco, along with Yousef bin Ahmad al Othaimeen, the secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, attended the conference. Each speaker reproached Israel for trying to eradicate the Arab-Muslim identity of Old Jerusalem, and the rest of Palestine, in the aftermath of the Six-Day War.
The event was organised by the office of the Turkish presidency. In his address, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the original Jerusalem Waqf was founded in 1552 by Hurrem Sultan, the wife of the then Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and ever since it has "distributed food to the poor for centuries and continues to do so."
The remaining Jerusalem Waqf still oversees Al Aqsa mosque, and is today formally administered by Jordan.
"Waqfs have played a critical role in terms of preserving the Al Aqsa Mosque and our other mosques," Erdogan told those present.
The Turkish government is stepping up rhetoric to challenge Israel over its seizure and the dismantling of Waqf properties after the 1967 war. "We will share our [Ottoman] registry records with our Palestinian brethren," Erdogan said.
The conference was timed just a month ahead of the anniversary marking fifty years of Israeli occupation of those Palestinian lands it seized in 1967. The conference was focused on discussing ways to reclaim the lost Ottoman properties and handing them back to their true inheritors. Legally speaking, the properties belonged to the Ottomans, but their holders and occupants were Palestinian.
Before Israeli forces captured the wall, the neighbourhood was lively, with hundreds of Palestinian inhabitants. Two days after the raid, they were all forced out of their homes in the middle of the night.
Israel's military commander Yitzhak Rabin described the capture of the wall as "the great victory."
Then Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan paid a visit to the wall on June 10, 1967. He justified the actions of Israeli military in biblical terms, "Today, we have reunited Jerusalem. We have returned to all that is holy in our land. We have returned, never to be parted from it again."
But three decades later, as Rabin, the military commander, became the country's prime minister, he started a peace process between Palestinians and Israelis. He favoured the withdrawal of Israeli troops from certain Palestinian territories, a position that triggered a backlash from the far-right.
Rabin signed the ill-fated Oslo Accords in 1993. He was assassinated two years later by Yigal Amir, a right-wing Israeli activist. Israel's far-right strongly opposed Rabin's plan to free the Occupied Territories. Benjamin Netanyahu, now the country's prime minister, was part of the anti-Rabin movement — part of the ever rightward drift of Israeli politics.
With Rabin's killing, the peace process failed, as did the political will to return Palestinian properties to Palestinians.
But the return of the Western Wall was out of question even for a moderate leader like Rabin. He believed that Israel should always maintain a tight grip over the wall and the area around it.
Now Turkey's initiative to initiate dialogue over the Ottoman Waqf, and its land and building rights in Occupied Palestine, comes at a time when Israel has the most right-wing government in its history.
What is the origin of Turkey's claim on Maghariba?
The neighbourhood was named as Maghariba, which is plural of Magharib, meaning the Westerners in Arabic, after the soldiers from North Africa and the south of Spain who were first settled there. Sultan Saladin Ayyubi rewarded them for having participated in the conquest of Jerusalem and Palestine with parcels of land and properties around the Western Wall in the 12th century.
The neighbourhood was further developed by Saladin's son, Al Afdal Ali. It was declared as a property of the waqf, a non-transferable charitable trust under Islamic law. The institution of waqf was designed to legally maintain areas as a public good in Islamic law, preventing the transfer of ownership or privatisation.
After the Ayyubids, the ownership of Jerusalem passed to several successive Muslim states, including the Mamluks and, finally, the Ottomans. Jerusalem's waqfs were continued by each of these regimes. A commission established in 1929 by the occupying British government and approved by the League of Nations, reached the conclusion that the entire neighbourhood, including the Western Wall, was solely owned by the same Waqf.
Yasser Arafat, co-founder and longtime leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), who notably led the Palestinian delegation during the negotiations for the Oslo Accords, repeatedly referred to this international commission to prove Palestinians historic claim to Old Jerusalem, including the area around the wall.
The residents of the Maghariba neighbourhood had lived a peaceful existence for centuries, until the British occupied Palestine in 1917. The Balfour Declaration favoured "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." With the British occupation, more and more Jews settled in Jerusalem, and their presence started to grow around the Western Wall too.
It wasn't long before unofficial secretive talks on Zionist aspirations to take control of the wall, its adjacent pavement and more significantly, Maghariba itself, began between the British authorities and Jewish leaders. During the late 1920s, violent skirmishes between Palestinians and Jews broke out.
In 1948, the First Arab-Israeli War led to the formation of Israel as a separate country in Palestine. At this point, however, East Jerusalem — including the wall and the Maghariba neighbourhood — remained under Jordanian rule.
"1967 is the date when an 800-year-old neighbourhood, which was not only a monument of Islamic heritage but also a monument of world heritage, was destroyed with the annexation of Jerusalem by Israel. The Israelis showed no respect for either international or waqf law," said Hasan Huseyin Gunes, a history professor at Bartin University.
Gunes' doctoral thesis was on the history of the Maghariba neighbourhood and since then, he has worked on the Ottoman Waqf, examining historic records.
"There were two old schools inside the neighbourhood. They were the Fakhriya Madrasa and the Afdiliyeh Madrasa, which was founded by Al Afdal, Saladin's son and heir," Gunes explained.
The Afdiliyeh Madrasa, one of the rare Islamic schools which dates back to Saladin's time, along with the Sheikh Eid Mosque, were levelled to the ground right after the capture of the wall in 1967. In the next two years, Israelis bulldozed the rest of the neighbourhood along with the remnants of Fakhriya.
Forever reliving the trauma
Sheikh Abdulhak, a 75-year-old Palestinian man, witnessed the entire demolition drive. Gunes interviewed Abdulhak in 2012 to learn about what had happened on the night when Israel began dismantling the area. After his house was flattened, Abdulhak ended up being forced from many other houses, in round after round of demolitions.
"In total, he was forced out from five different houses [in different locations in Jerusalem] all of which were demolished by Israeli authorities," Gunes told TRT World. "Most of the court documents concerning the demolished neighbourhood were also lost during his moves."
When Gunes met him, Abdulhak lived in a tiny, two-room apartment, a few minutes away away from the Islamic holy site known as Haram al Sharif, or Temple Mount — which remains under the control of a Waqf. There were cameras installed outside his house. Gunes said, giving him the impression that the elderly man was under Israeli government surveillance.
His house was so small that its rooms didn't even have shelves. "In one room, all the documents were randomly piled in one corner," Gunes said.
Abdulhak was a visibly tired man when Gunes saw him first. But as they spoke, Gunes was impressed to see his stern dedication towards the cause of winning back the property rights of the people who once lived in the Maghariba neighbourhood.
He had attempted multiple times to take the case before the Israeli courts but hasn't yet had any success.
"As he walked around his old neighbourhood, all of his bad memories came back," Gunes said. "Everyday, he lives with those scenes of destruction; how his family was forced out of the neighbourhood … and the destruction of their cultural heritage."
Yet for the Israelis who demolished the whole neighbourhood with their bulldozers, it was a proud moment. They believe that their actions were righteous, even after 50 years.
The Israeli government had dispatched 15 contractors to destroy houses that fateful night, according to an article published in June by Haaretz, a left-leaning Israeli newspaper. The newspaper recently interviewed some of them to figure out "how a small group of Israelis made the Western Wall Jewish again."
"I was sky-high, it was a pleasure," Sasson Levy, one of the contractors, told Haaretz when he was asked to describe how he felt as he was razing the historic buildings.
Yosef Schwartz, another contractor, who is dead now, took pride in demolishing the houses because "he felt that he was carrying out a great mission for the Jewish people," according to his daughter, Zehava Fuchs.
"No written documents remain concerning the decision, except for a hand-drawn map on a piece of paper that marked the boundaries of the area to be demolished," the author writes.
Yet whoever gave the command, in practise the demolition operation was overseen by Theodor "Teddy" Kollek, who was mayor of West Jerusalem from 1965 to 1967, and then of "unified" Jerusalem until 1993.
"It was the greatest thing we could do and it is good we did it immediately," commented Kollek, despite being lauded by many as representing the more "liberal" face of Zionism.
Israeli demolition drives were not limited to the Ottoman properties. Knesset, a neighbourhood where the Israeli parliament and the residences of the country's president and prime minister are now built, was a property formerly belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem.
A new door opens
Yet there are some occasions when the Israeli government returned land.
During the Soviet era, Israel bought the properties that had belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church properties from the communist Khrushchev government in exchange for oranges.
Since 2005, however, the Russians refuted the legality of that deal. Following President Vladimir Putin's first visit to Jerusalem, the Russian government made a legal and diplomatic bid to reclaim Saint Sergius Church and its lands, where the offices of Israel's agriculture ministry and other government agencies are currently built. Israel agreed in 2010 to return the property to the Russians.
Since the Israeli government agreed to return the Russian properties, it has opened the window for others to reclaim their properties — a prospect about which many Israeli politicians are hardly happy.
"I believe that this move represents a dangerous precedent of transferring properties in the heart of Jerusalem and is in violation of the city's interest, since this is not the only property being contested by foreign sources," said Nir Barkat, one of the mayoral candidates for Jerusalem, in 2008.
One of those "sources" could be Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire. It won't come easily, however.
"When I have raised these property and Ottoman waqf issues in Jerusalem [and at large in Palestine], many people say that we cannot get any kind of tangible legal results under current Israeli justice system," Gunes said.
"But I tell them that it should not prevent us from making the necessary legal and political preparations. When we have enough leverage and power, at the right time, we could go ahead and make our case at the national and international levels to get back our properties in the Holy Land."
The sentiment rings strongly in Turkish bureaucracy.
"We want to initiate an academic discourse on this particular subject," Adnan Tuzen, one of the top officials in Turkey's Directorate General of Foundations, told TRT World. The erasure of Ottoman properties from Palestine is etched deeply in Turkey's institutional memory — and that is something which the Turkish government won't forget, he said.