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High Court rejects Palestinian bid to thwart Tomb of Patriarchs elevator

Judges argue that importance of making Hebron shrine wheelchair accessible is paramount, dismissing arguments by local municipality that project damages ancient site’s aesthetics

Palestinians pray during Friday prayers at a protest against the construction of disabled access being built at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in the West Bank city of Hebron, on August 13, 2021. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)
Palestinians pray during Friday prayers at a protest against the construction of disabled access being built at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in the West Bank city of Hebron, on August 13, 2021. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

The High Court of Justice on Thursday denied a Palestinian petition against a settler project to make Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs shrine wheelchair accessible.

The three-judge panel rejected arguments from Hebron’s Palestinian-run city hall, which maintained that the project to install an elevator at the site was politically motivated, that it damages the aesthetics of the holy site and that there are more appropriate alternatives that would be less damaging.

The site, holy to both Jews and Muslims, is accessible now only by its iconic stairs. The $1.4 million project includes an elevator, a path to reach the entrance from the parking area, and a bridge connecting the elevator to the entrance.

The ruling allows Jewish residents of the divided flashpoint city to continue construction on the project, which began in August after years of planning and waiting for the necessary approvals by the Israeli government. The Defense Ministry said the work is expected to last six months.

The Hebron municipality and the Waqf, which oversees Muslim holy sites in the Palestinian territories, have objected to what they described as the expropriation of Palestinian land for the project.

In order to carry out the project, Israel had to take full control of the shrine and the land around it, part of which were under Palestinian control: the 1996 Wye River accords placed the southern West Bank city’s Palestinian municipality, along with the Waqf, in charge of the southeastern section of the site.

Border Police troops are seen deployed as Palestinian worshippers protest following Friday prayers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs denouncing Israeli construction plans at the site, in the city of Hebron in the West Bank, on August 13, 2021. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

The PA has also opposed the project, denouncing it as an effort to Judaize the city and appealing to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to intervene. The appeal also maintained that the modern structure of the elevator shaft envisioned for the settler project does not comport aesthetically to the ancient city.

The Hebron municipality proposed several alternative designs for the project, but the judges rejected them, for various reasons, including security concerns.

“The question is not whether there is room for such accessibility work but how this has not been done to date,” the judges argued, maintaining that the importance of making the holy site accessible to everyone trumped many of the other concerns.

The ruling came days after a large outcry over a lack of handicapped accessibility at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, which kept Israeli Energy Minister Karin Elharrar from being able to enter in her wheelchair.

The judges noted that while Israeli authorities had sought to work with the Palestinian municipality in order to advance the project together, the latter ignored the efforts, leaving the settlers with no choice but to go at it alone.

“We have not lost sight of the sensitivity along with the political and religious complexities associated with the Tomb of the Patriarchs complex. However, even the appellants acknowledged the need to make the site [wheelchair] accessible. Therefore it is regrettable that this humanitarian issue has also become a political one and a source of controversy,” the judges wrote.

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