Israel’s High Court is deliberating a petition submitted by the nongovernmental organization Emek Shaveh against the construction of an elevator at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The group — which focuses on archaeological issues that arise in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — says the project detracts from the character of the historic site and damages its ancient structure. The group also says the initiative is purely political, with the sole goal of pleasing West Bank settlers.
The project came into the public eye in May, shortly before the swearing-in of the new Netanyahu-Gantz government. As one of his last actions in the position of defense minister, Naftali Bennett approved a $1.4 million project, including an elevator, a path to reach the Tomb of the Patriarchs entrance from the parking area and a bridge connecting the elevator to the entrance. Bennett — who heads the pro-settler Yamina party — instructed then-Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Kamil Abu Rukon to take all necessary action, including expropriating land near the site, to advance the elevator project.
“We have greenlighted the elevator project to end the many years of discrimination at the site. Every person, irrespective of whether or not they are disabled, should have the opportunity to visit the tomb, which is an important Jewish heritage site,” Bennett said May 3. He tweeted in Hebrew, “The cave has belonged to us, to the people of Israel, since Abraham purchased it with his own money 3,800 years ago. It is a great reward to play a role in this.’’
But objections quickly arose. the Hebron municipality said Bennett had greenlighted the plan without obtaining the Palestinian municipality’s agreement, saying the project would violate several agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. The municipality said these agreements make the Palestinian Authority the planning authority for the site. The 1997 Hebron Protocol, signed by the PLO and Israel, divides the city into two zones — Area H1, under Palestinian control, and Area H2, under Israeli control. The protocol also signals that authority for issuing permits in the city lies exclusively with the Hebron municipality, the Palestinians said.
The Hebron municipality condemned any intent to expropriate Palestinian land in the vicinity of the site for the project. The Palestinian Authority denounced the “Judaization’’ of the site, describing the project as an "invasion of Hebron ... as a service for the settlers who want to strengthen the settlement in this area.”
Following Bennett's approval, the project was transferred to the Israel Defense Force's Civil Administration Planning Committee, which is responsible for the approval of construction plans in the West Bank. Emek Shaveh and Palestinians from Hebron filed objections against the plan. The Israeli NGO argued that the plan “is more political than humanitarian and marks a breach in the status quo in Hebron, creating additional friction between Jews and Muslims in a place which is already suffering from extreme tension.’’ Emek Shaveh also argued that the Israeli Cabinet, because it was part of a transitional government, was not authorized to make such decisions.
By the end of May, a new government was sworn in. Israeli and Palestinian activists hoped the project would be shelved after the change of government and defense minister, but such was not the case. On July 15, Defense Minister Benny Gantz first addressed the issue, saying, “It is unacceptable that a site as important to both Jews and Muslims as the Tomb of the Patriarchs would be inaccessible to those who are disabled.’’
Despite the objections, the planning and licensing committee of the Civil Administration approved the project Oct. 1. Emek Shaveh then appealed the matter to the High Court.
Uri Elrich of Emek Shaveh told Al-Monitor that the whole planning process of the project was fast-tracked. Archaeology experts and architects specialized in preservation were not consulted. The Antiquity Authority officer within the Civil Administration did not participate in the development of the project. His comments appeared in the file after the plan was already elaborated. For the NGO, this clearly indicates that the plan is political in nature. More so, the project is attached to the entrance that serves Jewish worshippers only. Muslim worshippers use another entrance to the site, and will apparently not benefit from the new construction.
Elrich said there are other alternatives for making the site accessible to the handicapped. “Minister Gantz authorized the plan shortly after meeting with leaders of the settlers. It is strange that for such a sensitive site, which is sacred to both religions, and with such historical and archaeological importance, decisions were taken so rapidly and so unprofessionally.’’
Indeed, the archaeological and historical importance of the site goes even beyond the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In 2017, UNESCO declared the core of the Old City of Hebron as a Palestinian Heritage site. The UN agency added it to the World Heritage in Danger List, specifically naming the Tomb of the Patriarchs. In other words, in 2017, UNESCO warned against actions that could harm the historical character of the site.