Critics say Israel illegally ramming through project at ancient West Bank site holy to both Muslims and Jews
The Israeli Supreme Court this week rejected a petition by the Palestinian Authority’s Hebron Municipality against the installation of an elevator for people with disabilities.
The site is an ancient structure Muslims call the Ibrahimi Mosque, and Jews and Christians the Cave of the Patriarchs.
The municipality in the southern West Bank city wants the accessibility project stopped, saying construction is taking place on land it owns together with the Palestinian Waqf Islamic trust, which operates under the aegis of the PA Religious Affairs Ministry, but the court said the Israeli Civil Administration’s Higher Planning Council could move forward.
Under the Hebron Protocol the PLO signed with Israel in 1997 and which divided the city into two zones – Area H1, under Palestinian control, and Area H2, under Israeli control – authority for issuing permits in the city lies exclusively with the municipality.
Hebron Mayor Tayseer Abu Sneineh explained to The Media Line that the Israeli project would confiscate about 300 square meters around the Ibrahimi Mosque to establish the elevator and the road leading to it.
“We as a municipality own part of this land, and the rest is owned by the Waqf,” he said.
The mayor claims the project violates international law, signed agreements with Israel and Israeli law.
“The [Israeli] defense minister had no right to confiscate land to serve one category [of people] – if we consider the settler community a [legitimate] category, but they are not,” Abu Sneineh said.
In February, only days before the March 2 elections for Knesset, Israel’s parliament, then-defense minister Naftali Bennett gave a green light to build the elevator project.
“Israeli sovereignty must be imposed on the settlement of Kiryat Arba, located on the outskirts of Hebron, and on the Cave of the Patriarchs and its environs,” he said.
The mayor emphasizes that based on agreements signed with Israel, authority for building anywhere in the city is the exclusive prerogative of the municipality.
“When we objected, they transferred the authority to the Israeli Higher Planning Council, and that’s illegal,” he stated.
When we objected, they transferred the authority to the Israeli Higher Planning Council, and that’s illegal
Abu Sneineh says the precedent will probably hold for any future Israeli construction in any part of Hebron.
“It’s absurd and illogical, as the only parties responsible for authorizing and organizing construction are municipalities, so we consider this a huge violation of our authority and of the agreements signed,” he said.
He added that the municipality would consider all possible means to stop Israeli hegemony over Palestinian lands and rights.
“We formed a legal committee at the beginning of the so-called project, and it monitors things closely in order to define the next steps,” he said.
“This occupation can make things happen by force, but it can never use force to create a legitimate right,” he continued. “It can confiscate my house tonight, but that doesn’t give Israel a right to my house.”
When reached by The Media Line, a spokesperson in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the matter, as did Eliyahu Libman, head of the Kiryat Arba Local Council.
Shai Glick, CEO of Btsalmo, a Jewish rights organization, told The Media Line that Israel had overall responsibility for the holy site, adding that the Waqf controlled only part of the building.
“The Hebron Municipality’s refusal to allow accessibility [to people with disabilities] and its actions in contradiction to human rights are why Israel must take responsibility and advance human rights. It is a humanitarian, non-political issue,” he insisted.
The Hebron Municipality’s refusal to allow accessibility [to people with disabilities] and its actions in contradiction to human rights are why Israel must take responsibility and advance human rights. It is a humanitarian, non-political issue
Glick says construction of the elevator will allow any person of any religion and any nationality to visit and pray at the holy site.
“Freedom of worship and the right of every person to accessibility are supreme values. It is a basic human right throughout the world,” he stated.
“We, as a human rights organization, are proud to lead the fight for human rights for every person, anywhere and anytime,” he went on. “Human rights are above politics. The elevator will only promote human rights and encourage coexistence.”
Glick says that Israel is committed to international law, which requires accessibility to public buildings.
“The State of Israel is committed to giving equal opportunities and freedom of worship to every citizen and tourist, and every person in the world. Leaving such an important site inaccessible to certain members of any religion would be a violation of basic human rights,” he noted.
“It is very unfortunate that instead of helping people, the Waqf, which is a religious body, prefers to fight and [promote] harm,” he said.
About 800 Jews live among more than 200,000 Palestinians in Hebron. The Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs is situated at the center of the Old City and is believed by both Muslims and Jews to be the traditional burial place of Abraham. Muslims consider it the fourth-holiest site in Islam and the second-holiest Islamic site in Palestine.
Hebron, and the religious site in particular, have long been a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence. In February 1994, during Ramadan, a Jewish settler gunned down 29 Muslims at prayer inside the mosque. After that, Israel divided it into two areas – half mosque and half synagogue – with separate entrances.
In 2017, to the anger of Israel, UNESCO declared the mosque a Palestinian World Heritage site.
Muhannad al-Ja’bari, a Fatah member representing central Hebron and holding the portfolio for its Old City, claims that people with disabilities can already access the site. He accuses Israel of using the coronavirus pandemic as cover for the project and exploiting the lack of a Palestinian presence.
“It [Israel] made a bunch of unfair decisions, chief among them was the military’s confiscation of the area around the Ibrahimi Mosque, which exceeds its authority,” he told The Media Line. “This is the first time such a thing has happened to a holy place that is under the Waqf’s authority.”
He claimed Israel’s intentions were clear: It is planning to “annex” the Ibrahimi Mosque and the area around it.
“The Israeli dream in the city of Hebron isn’t only about the mosque, but to connect the Old City of Hebron with the Kiryat Arba settlement while removing Palestinians to secure safe passage for the settlers,” he stated.
The Israeli dream in the city of Hebron isn’t only about the mosque, but to connect the Old City of Hebron with the Kiryat Arba settlement while removing Palestinians to secure safe passage for the settlers
He says that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has promised settlers and his supporters to implement the elevator project.
“Let’s not forget that Netanyahu has visited the Ibrahimi Mosque twice recently,” Ja’bari said.
“On daily basis, the Israeli Shin Bet intelligence service calls in Palestinian activists in the Ibrahimi Mosque area to pressure them and restrict them from carrying out activities there,” he claimed. “This comes as part of a systematic Israeli policy to slowly empty the mosque of us [Palestinians].”
He added that the presidency of the Palestinian Authority has contacted international bodies about the matter.