The PA refuses to join Israel’s initiative to improve accessibility to the holy site shared by Jews and Muslims, alleging attempts at “Judaization” and “invasion of Hebron.”
By Sheri Oz
Israel’s invitations to the mayor of Hebron and to the Waqf (Islamic Trust) asking them to join in a project to render the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, shared by Jews and Muslims, accessible to the disabled and elderly of all faiths have been ignored over the years, and Israel has hesitated to go ahead on its own.
According to the Hebron Agreement of 1997, 97% of the City of Hebron, located in Judea, was put under Palestinian rule, and 3%, containing the Jewish neighborhoods, were put under the auspices of Israel.
Historical note: In a brutal massacre in 1929, the small, ancient Jewish community of Hebron was attacked; many incidents of rape, torture and mutilation were reported. The city was occupied by Jordan between 1948 and 1967. After the Six Day War, Jews began returning to Hebron.
Indeed, the biblical city of Hebron was the first Jewish capital and remains the second-holiest city to Judaism, after Jerusalem.
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The Cave of the Patriarchs has two entrances, one for Muslims and one for Jews. Non-Jews and tourists may enter either side. Referred to in Arabic as the Ibrahimi Mosque, it contains the tombs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives, Sarah, Rivka and Leah (Jacob’s wife Rachel is buried outside Bethlehem). The stairs on the side open to Jews are unmanageable by many pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly. The stairs on the Muslim side are less precarious but also very difficult to climb.
Israeli governments have been trying, since the year 2000, to advance plans to provide greater accessibility, and they apparently would have preferred to do so with the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority (PA). In fact, Israel has offered to pay for the construction that would take place at the Muslim-controlled entrance. On the Israel side, an elevator would be built and would be open to people of all faiths.
When invitations to the Palestinian Authority (PA) to join in the initiative were met by silence, Israel finally gave up and decided to go ahead on its own. And now the PA has at last found its voice.
According to Palestinian Media Watch, the PA is accusing Israel of “Judaization” of the site and an act of “invasion of Hebron . . . as a service for the settlers who want to strengthen the settlement in this area.” They even referred to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Hebron in September 2019 as an “invasion.”
Construction of the elevator requires appropriation of about 10 meters of Waqf land. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit approved the appropriation less than two weeks ago, but the idea was put forward in the June 2019 session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, which is responsible for managing the accessibility project. The documents are awaiting the signatures of Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, all of whom have approved in principle.
Member of Knesset Keti Shitreet (Likud) has been a major force in moving this project forward in the last few years. She is calling on Bennett to sign the document so that the project can move on to the next stage.
Bennett’s office told United with Israel that the minister will sign the document after it is signed by the prime minister and foreign minister. The current situation is that all have approved the land appropriation in principle but none of the three have yet signed.
Fear of violent reprisals should Israel go ahead with the project without PA cooperation is apparently what caused such a long delay in moving forward. Announcement of the approval in principle may be the way by which they gauge how likely it is that violence will, in fact, erupt, perhaps especially now during the Moslem holiday of Ramadan, and while Israel is talking about extending its sovereignty over Area C of Judea and Samaria.
In addition to the official PA allegations of Israel’s “Judaization” of the site, there were some angry responses to the announcement of the impending land appropriation from other sources. The Permanent Secretariat in support of Palestinian Intifada at the Iranian Parliament minced no words in threatening Israel for allegedly taking advantage of the coronovirus pandemic to steal Palestinian land and issued a statement warning the “bloodthirsty and child-killer regime of Israel against the consequences of such an aggressive act.”
The radical leftist American organization Jewish Voice for Peace also came down harshly on Israel, claiming that “Hebron is under attack” and that land “is about to be stolen violently.”
The Middle East Monitor, characterized by BBC as a pro-Hamas publication, tweeted that Israel approved of appropriation of the mosque. This gives the mistaken impression that Israel seeks to appropriate the entire site but only 10 meters of land are required for building the elevator. Their article neglects to state that the elevator will make the holy site accessible to Muslims as well as Jews.
At the most recent committee meeting on February 10, 2020, agreement in principle to proceed without cooperation from the Palestinians was reaffirmed and the potential repercussions were discussed. Committee members were informed that there is a blueprint for construction and that the Tourism Ministry and Ministry for Religious Affairs have both set aside funds to pay for the project.
Committee chairperson Gabi Ashkenazi stated during the meeting that the public is pressing for this matter to be resolved and the next session would be open to the public. Something else to look forward to after Israel gets past the coronavirus crisis.
Shitreet emphasized that the project is humanitarian and not political:
“We are talking about making the site accessible since the year 2000 and to date, in spite of all our efforts, it has not happened. … A moral society must allow the disabled and elderly access to the second most holy place we have, and instead of that we allowed the Waqf the harm them and to run our lives.”
Shitreet told UWI that making the site accessible to all is of personal importance to her. “She, herself, prays there,” remarked her spokeswoman. B’tsalmo, a rightwing human rights organization, has been working hand in hand with Shitreet to finally allow the disabled and elderly of all religions to be able to worship in this most important site.
UWI reached out for comment to Netanyahu and Katz, as well as Hebron Mayor Teisar Abu Sneineh, but they had not yet responded.