Israel has approved the start of work on a controversial Museum of Tolerance that will be built on the site of an old Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem, a spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
The project, organised by the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Centre, was the subject of a lengthy legal battle, with Palestinians and some Israeli supporters arguing the museum would desecrate the burial site.
Israel's courts rejected the argument, saying the site was deconsecrated decades ago, and the project has received planning approval from local authorities despite the protests.
On Tuesday, the interior ministry's district planning committee gave the final go-ahead for work to begin on digging the foundations for the museum, interior ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach told AFP.
"The permit was officially approved long ago, yesterday what was approved was only the first step towards the building itself," she said.
"Yesterday it was the first step towards building, which means that they have the permission to start digging. From yesterday they can start digging for that project. But the project itself was already approved about 10 years ago."
Palestinians and Arab-Israelis, including some whose ancestors were buried at the Mamun Allah cemetery in Jerusalem, have expressed outrage at plans to build a museum dedicated to tolerance on a former burial site.
But Israel's Supreme Court in 2008 ruled that the site was no longer a burial ground, pointing out no objections were lodged in 1960 when the municipality put a parking lot over part of the graveyard.
Lawyers for the project's promoters, backed by Jerusalem city authorities, have offered to transfer any graves to a section of the graveyard that will not be affected by the construction, but Muslim leaders rejected the suggestion.
Huda al-Imam, director of the Centre for Jerusalem Studies and a leading campaigner against the museum's construction, said activists would continue to push for the project's cancellation.
"We are trying as much as possible to do this with efforts not only on the United Nations level but also on the Israeli court level, on the international court level," she told AFP.
"We're trying also to put some pressure on certain Arab leaders, such as Jordan King Abdullah to try to intervene and see whether it is possible to put some pressure on the Israeli side."
Imam said the cemetery represents "Palestinian cultural heritage and it is supposed to be a protected place or site."
"They should respect human heritage and human dignity and not build this museum of tolerance on a Palestinian cultural site and try to delete our identity."
It was not clear when ground would be broken on the project. Plans unveiled in 2010 call for a six-storey structure with three floors above ground and three below, at an estimated cost of $100 million.
The new design was created by an Israeli architecture firm after famed architect Frank Gehry pulled out of the project last year.