If this was about a mosque, the elevator would have been built decades ago.
Finally! The end of a surrealistic battle that should shame everyone who fought against making a religious site accessible to the disabled, the elderly and pregnant women who are left at the bottom of the long treacherous staircase leading to the prayer halls at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, able only to gaze up in longing,
unless someone is willing to take the chance of being carrying up to this, the second most sacred site to Judaism.
In November 2019, I began writing about the elevator scandal. And I came late onto the scene. I have since written two further articles (here and here) and this makes the third. After each article, I was sure my next would be to announce that the bulldozers had gone onto the land and had begun to prepare the infrastructure that would finally give the disabled, the elderly, and pregnant women the accessibility human rights activists and common sense usually demand for public buildings. I underestimated the ill will of some leftist Israeli NGOs and the terrorist-mayor of Arab-Hebron. I still cannot report on bulldozers on the site, but this is still a hopeful moment, more hopeful than there has been for years.
There was much foot-scraping, even after the relevant Knesset committees approved one of the proposed designs for a gradually inclined path leading from the road to the foot of the building and then an elevator to carry those who cannot climb the steps. And then, just as it appears that the way is clear for execution of the elevator project, up pops an additional body (most recently Emek Shaveh) to challenge the move and months go by before yet another shameful session takes place during which they try to relegate the project to the dustbin.
There is a law enforcing accessibility of public places, but . . .
How many times does one need to point out the absurdity of the situation? MK (Shas) Moshe Abutbul states it clearly in a video taken on 3 March 2021 as he stood before the court on the day it held a session on the suit brought forward by the Mayor of Hebron against the accessibility project (that would serve the Moslem community as well, by the way):
We are here this morning at the District Court of Jerusalem in order to defend something so simple and elementary — accessibiity of the Cave of the Patriarchs, the burial place of our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov… Unfortunately, we have to fight for something so elementary as this, As mayor of Beit Shemesh for ten years, they would constantly harass us, municipal mayors, ensuring that we would make schools [for example] accessible. They even were prepared to make us personally responsible for this. And now, suddenly, when it come to the Cave of the Patriarchs, the government brushes it off and does not understand that accessibility here is obligatory and it allows people who have no connection to the place to come and oppose the project.
In the video, Abutbul expresses his sense of shame for each day that passes and people who want to visit this important site are prevented from doing so. Then he thanks the NGO Betzalmo, with Shai Glick at its head, for their unrelenting dedication to fighting for this most worthy human rights battle. Glick worked with a number of MKs who were just as determined as he was to see the project carried out; these include Keti Shitreet (Likud), Yehudah Glick (Likud), Michael Malchieli (Shas), Matan Kahana (Yamina), Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid), and more.
The Court Arrives at a Final Verdict
Over a year ago, then-Defence Minister Naftali Bennett (Yamina) approved the expropriation of the land required to build a ramp leading to the bottom of the Cave of the Patriarchs site and an elevator up to the prayer halls and current Defence Minister Benny Gantz (Blue&White) approved the rest of the process. But work could not begin because of a temporary injunction when the Mayor of Hebron, former terrorist (released in a prisoner swap deal) Tayseer Abu Sneineh, petitioned the court against the project. The court session took place on Wednesday, 3 March 2021 and a decision was rendered the next morning. I have read the entire protocol and here I summarize it for you:
The petitioners were (1) The City of Hebron, (2) The Hebron Waqf, and (3) The Committee for the Rehabiitation of the Old City of Hebron.
The respondents were: (1) the Defence Minister, (2) the Head of COGAT, (3) Supreme Planning Board Subcommittee for Objections, (4) Supreme Planning Board Subcommittee on Planning and Licensing.
In essence, the court decided that the human rights of disabled members of our population must be upheld and the request to deny permission for the elevator project is rejected. The final paragraph (translated by me below the image) reads:
The conclusion of all the above is that decisionmaking on the part of the respondents regarding accessibility of the Cave of the Patriarchs site was not defective. Respondent 4 accepted authority for planning only after the respondents were convinced that there was no intention on the part of the petitioners to cooperate with attempts to render the site accessible. The actions taken by the respondents were with the intention of allowing people with disabilities to exercise their basic rights for dignity and equality and to allow them, independently to the extent possible, to approach the sacred site and to enter it. The decisions reached by respondents 3 and 4 were well reasoned and explained, founded upon professional principles and were taken after thorough examination [of the issues]. Under these circumstances, it is determined that the petitioners have no basis for their arguments suggesting that there was defective decisionmaking in such a way as to bring about its negation.
Therefore, I order the petition be denied.
It really is the height of chutzpah for the Mayor of Hebron and the Hebron Waqf to complain that all decisions regarding the accessibility project were made without their input when, as the court noted, there had been numerous invitations from Israel over the decades to handle this together. Israel even offered to pay for making the Muslim entrance accessible. Perhaps readers who have not visited the site are unaware of the fact that there are two entrances to the prayer halls and the inner space is divided into two sections so that Jews and Muslims can pray independently and freely. On certain holidays, the whole site is made available to the group celebrating in order to open up the space to the multitudes that arrive on such special occasions. During Muslim holidays, the Jewish entrance is open to them (but you can be sure that the reverse does not occur) and they will surely use the elevator. In fact, it is possible that, once built, Muslims who cannot manage the fewer steps at their own entrance will be granted entrance via the elevator all days of the year. Because, after all, accessibility is a basic human right. And that possibility was even written into one of the documents submitted to the court by the respondents.
Regarding specifics of the project design, the court noted that the petitioners had been offered opportunities to submit their own professionally based options, did not accept an invitation to visit the site together to discuss options nor did they provide any alternatives that may have been more acceptable to them. The court chided them for not doing anything at all toward making the site accessible to their own population.
The court referred to the petitioners’ argument that the land appropriation required for the project would infringe on their property rights and contravenes international law. The court stated that property rights are not absolute and they must be weighed against the right for freedom of worship. To the petitioners’ claim that the project would not serve the local population, the court reminded them that the Jewish residents are also part of the local population. Furthermore, the court noted, 50K to 80K Muslim worshippers who pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs during the ten days when it is open to them alone, enter via the side they oppose making accessible.
The court made it clear that there is no argument today regarding the obligation to ensure accessibility to all public buildings and that Israel has laws that protect this basic right for all. While Israeli law does not pertain to that region, the court determined that the principles of equality of accessibility are applicable in this case. Because the Hebron municipality and the Waqf ignored all invitations to take part in the project, the court saw fit that Israel accepted upon herself the responsibility and the authority to make the site accessible on her own.
Can the petitioners appeal to the Supreme Court?
Given the nature of the case and because it was based upon a basic human rights issue, B’tzalmo CEO Shai Glick claims that it is unlikely that the decision will be reversed.
What remains now is to bring on the bulldozers. On the same day that the decision was made public, MK Shitreet submitted a letter to Defence Minister Benny Gantz. She wrote that, given that the budget for the project has already been set aside, the design approved and a contractor chosen, there is no reason to delay beginning construction work.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised about a year and a-half ago that the site would be accessible to all by Passover 2020. It is unlikely that it will be accessible by Passover 2021. So no more promises — just do it!