Court blocks NGO control over Old City southern complex

Legal ruling says the government cannot transfer area to Elad, as site includes non-denominational prayer platform

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court blocked a government decision to cede administrative control of the southern wall complex of the Old City of Jerusalem — adjacent to the Western Wall — to a non-profit organization on Monday, after representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements argued that the move would place restrictions on the non-denominational prayer site planned there.

The court decision effectively cancelled the agreement between the government organization JQDC (The Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem Ltd.) and the Ir David foundation, known as Elad, which runs the nearby City of David archaeological site.

The case was filed by the State Attorney amid fears the transfer of control to a non-government organization would limit government control over the plaza for pluralistic services. Meanwhile, the decision to lease the area to Elad was backed by Housing Minister Uri Ariel.

Although the court ultimately adopted the State Attorney’s position, it nonetheless rejected many of its claims, including that the area was considered a holy site, and that the move would compromise Israel’s security and foreign ties. Still, the court conceded that “it compromises the government’s freedom of action and may hinder the plan to set up a worship site for the various denominations.”

Representatives from the Conservative and Reform movements hailed the ruling Monday.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), praised the decision and urged the government to quickly build the plaza “which provides a place and expression of all the factions in Israel,” Haaretz reported. Yizhar Hess of the Masorti movement called the decision “poetic,” and said the government must follow-up on its commitment to establish the plaza.

The announcement of the agreement to transfer the authority of the site last March was sharply criticized by both left-wing NGOs, who opposed Elad’s right-wing stance and settlement efforts in East Jerusalem, and non-Orthodox groups who maintained that the area was designated for a future prayer site for the Women of the Wall and Reform and Conservative services and that the transfer of jurisdiction would likely impinge on the construction efforts.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said in March that the site would be placed under a future government-appointed pluralist council.

“The Israel Plaza belongs to all of the Jewish people and will be run by the State of Israel,” Bennett said, using another name for the Robinson’s Arch plaza. “I didn’t build the plaza for it to be transferred to a private organization.”

Robinson’s Arch in the southern complex is used by non-Orthodox groups as a prayer space, and last year Bennett ordered construction of a platform there for that purpose. The government is negotiating with the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements, along with women’s prayer group Women of the Wall, to expand the plaza.

The non-Orthodox movements protested the Elad deal, as they said it reneged on a prior agreement with the government to place Robinson’s Arch in the hands of a future council with non-Orthodox representation. In the wake of the protest, Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit said he intended to block the impending deal.

JTA contributed to this report.

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