Only in Israel: Human Rights Activists Against Human Rights
I wonder if it is only in Israel or concerning Israel that we find human rights activists fighting human rights. And our government does not seem to know how to deal with it. In this case, we have a supposed human rights organization fighting the human rights of the disabled, the elderly and young children to pray in the Cave of the Patriarchs; currently the prayer halls are totally inaccessible to them. In fact, Moti Ohayon and others have been seriously injured from falls while being carried up the steps in wheelchairs when all they wanted to do was pray at the site of the graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah, and even, it is believed, at the burial places of Adam and Eve.
The committee responsible for overseeing the project to build an accessibility elevator is dillydallying and not convening to deal with the delay. And this is after all the documents were signed by the Prime Minister, Minister of Defence and Finance Minister.
What a disappointment to all who saw their ability to safely pray at the holy site just over the horizon!
Background to the Elevator Project
In an article published in November 2019, I wrote:
The request to make the site accessible to all was first submitted in 2003 by the Hebron Jewish Community Committee to the military authority. This was followed by repeated attempts by a number of organizations to raise awareness of the dire need for an elevator. When no action was taken, supposedly because of security issues and concerns of changing the status quo between the Jewish and Palestinian populations in the city, Btzalmo took up the mantle and, for the last few years, [campaigned] tirelessly by writing letters to those with the power to carry out the project and by ensuring that the media keep the topic alive.
The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee is responsible for the project. At their meeting in July 2019, committee members agreed that this was a humanitarian project of utmost importance. It was also clear that the elevator was required in order to be in compliance with international law stating that all public buildings must be accessible. Repeated requests for coordination with the Hebron municipality, which was given authority over building permits as per the 1997 Hebron Agreement signed by Netanyahu and Arafat, were ignored. (Israel had offered to make the Muslim entrance accessible at the same time as they were working on the Jewish entrance.) At the committee meeting, members wondered aloud how long they would wait for the Hebron mayor to respond before deciding to proceed without his involvement. It was hoped that the prayer halls would be accessible by Passover 2020.
Finally, in February 2020, all the documents approving the project were signed by the requisite ministers — the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister and the Finance Minister. After years of attempting to coordinate the accessibility project together with the Hebron municipality and being ignored, the only way to move forward was for Israel to expropriate the land required to build the elevator (about 4-10 square meters) and a path from the parking area up to the base of the site (about 150 meters long).
The expropriation order was approved by the Justice Ministry, Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister on May 12, 2020 and COGAT, the Civil Administration for Judea & Samaria, then had to inform the Hebron municipality of the decision. Protocol requires that 60 days be given for objections to be raised and COGAT now has the authority to respond to the objections. It appears that COGAT can now hold up the construction of the elevator should they decide to do so, in spite of the fact that, in an email to me, they stated that it “is an important humanitarian project”.
The only one of our elected officials who responded to my request for a comment on this current situation was MK Michael Malchieli (Shas). His office pointed out the absurdity of the situation in which a body that is meant to carry out decisions reached by the policy making branch of government now has the power to delay, perhaps even permanently, implementaton of a project they were instructed to execute.
There were only two objections filed this time: one by the Hebron municipality and the other by an Israeli NGO called Emek Shaveh. The municipality states publicly that the Israeli “occupation” is stealing land and that Israel is using a so-called humanitarian excuse as cover for what they say is an illegal act. This response was totally predictable.
Possible Beneficial Side Effect of Israeli Land Expropriation for the Elevator
Interestingly, however, the comments offered by Samer Shehadeh, the lawyer representing Hebron Municipality at the August 4th COGAT hearing for discussing objections to the project gave a different impression. He commented a number of times about the importance of the project and asked for documents detailing the specific design plans of the three alternatives considered.
This makes me wonder if, as a result of Israel’s expropriation of land for the project, Arab Hebron is reconsidering their objections, especially, perhaps, since Israel did offer to make their own Muslim entrance accessible to their own disabled and elderly worshippers. It appears that an Israeli show of strength and determination invites a different response from their counterparts in the Palestinian Authority (PA) than obsequiousness does. Finally taking the reins, in spite of PA screams of “occupation, occupation” and in spite of UNESCO’s vile determination in 2017 that the Cave of the Patriarchs is a “Palestinian” heritage site in danger from Israeli “vandalism”, in spite of fears of an Arab uprising expressed by Jews who take PA threats at face value, when Israel behaves like the sovereign state that we are, we are treated with greater respect.
In fact, it is possible that Israel actually solved an internal matter for the Arabs of Hebron. COGAT concluded that: “…the Palestinians decided not to engage in this project with us, due to their own internal reasons.” It is possible that many Arabs in Hebron were in favour of making the site accessible but they could not appear to be cooperating with Israel because that is not a safe thing for a Palestinian Arab to do. With our unilateral act of expropriating the land, we solved this problem for them.
An Israeli NGO against Human Rights
An objection that I consider particularly heinous is that filed by an Israeli NGO I had never heard of before preparing this article.
Emek Shaveh proclaims on its website that it is:
However, it becomes very clear that their work is absolutely political. They are against making the Cave of the Patriarchs accessible to the disabled, elderly and others who cannot make it up the stairs leading from the parking lot to the security checkpoint and from there up to the entrance to the prayer halls, a climb equal to going up to the third floor of an apartment building.
What are their arguments? They claim in the Facebook post above that the project will damage the archaeological, historical and religious site due to amateurish planning and decisionmaking that was political and not professional. They go on to claim that the Archaeological Unit of COGAT did nothing more than give general guidelines to the project and that there was no serious consideration of alternative designs nor research into the accessibility designs at other similar sites in Israel or around the world.
This is a remarkable post given that it was made after the NGO had already attended a meeting at which it was made clear that the Archaeological Unit was closely involved with all stages of design and there were two other major alternative designs considered. All three options were investigated regarding complexity, potential damage to the building, costs and utility for the intended population. COGAT agreed to send the detailed comparisons to both Emek Shaveh and Hebron municipality. The former should have already received their copy by the time they put up the post or shortly afterward, and this hollow objection can thus been seen to be for propaganda purposes only.
Regarding their argument that there was no research into accessibility arrangements at other important historical sites around the world, Emek Shaveh Chairman Yonaton Mizrahi raised the example of the Tower of London:
I ask this question because there are historical and religious sites around the world. There is a reason that I do not know of examples of erecting such a massive construction on the outside of the building [as this elevator would be]. … Why, for argument’s sake, did they not do that at the Tower of London? It [an external elevator] causes serious harm to a historic building. … How do [the disabled] get to the Tower of London, for instance?
Gila Zionit from the COGAT Environmental Protection Unit replied:
If Mizrahi had done his research before the meeting, he would have easily found the accessibility guide for the Tower of London, in which it is clear that the wheelchair-bound and other disabled individuals need not even try to visit the site. Accusing the Israeli elevator design team of not having done their research is ironic, to say the least. Furthermore, comparing the Tower of London with the Cave of the Patriarchs shows Mizrahi’s total lack of comprehension regarding the significance of the latter to Jews, Moslems and Christians.
He makes his political views clear when he refers to the Cave of the Patriarchs as not being in Israel. He seems to agree with the UNESCO decision to label it as a “Palestinian” heritage sight. And he seems to agree with them that the building is in danger because Israel wants to add an elevator in order to allow the disabled and elderly access to the prayer halls. Hebron municipality did not even go that far.
To Emek Shaveh’s accusation that Israel is not considering the potential damage to the building, MK Malchieli’s office expressed astonishment:
The Cave of the Patriarchs is holy for us. Why would we harm it in any way?
On 27 July, MK Gideon Saar (Likud) sent a letter to MK Zvi Hauser (Blue&White), Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, asking him to call an immediate session of the Committee to advance the accessibility project. Saar claims that COGAT is delaying approval and holding up progress on the work. On 16 August, MK Malchieli also sent a letter to MK Hauser asking for an urgent session of the Committee. In addition to arguing that COGAT is delaying approval by entertaining an objection filed by Emek Shaveh, Malchieli adds that:
…according to the Goldstar website [information on NGOs in Israel], Emek Shaveh received funds from the EU apparently for the purpose of opposing making the Cave of the Patriarchs accessible.
Other than from MK Malchieli’s office, I could not get an answer from anyone regarding the current situation. Just like my queries were ignored, so, apparently, were requests to convene an urgent meeting of the Committee charged with overseeing the project to build an elevator making the Cave of the Patriarchs accessible to all, Jews, Muslims, everyone.
Shai Glick, CEO of the human rights organization, B’tsalmo,
Close to two million people of all religions, from Israel and around the world, visit the Cave of the Patriarchs each year. There is no other site like it in the world that is not accessible! This situation is a disgrace. And it is a serious infraction of human rights. Each moment COGAT delays moving forward with this project is an injustice. We ask the Defence Minister to remind the staff at COGAT that their job is to take care of human rights and not to lend an ear to radical leftwing organizations that care only about hurting the State of Israel, the byproduct of which is the prevention of millions of disabled people from worshipping at the holy site.
It appears that celebrations marking final government approval for proceeding with this major project were premature. A very sad state of affairs for sure.
Feature Image Credit: One of the sketches of the planned elevator designed by Ami Gvirtzman Architects.