PM shelves Western Wall building project over security fears

Last-minute intervention by Netanyahu nixes approval for a controversial museum, office at the Jerusalem holy site

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Police officers walking in the Western Wall plaza of the Old City of Jerusalem, September 13, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers walking in the Western Wall plaza of the Old City of Jerusalem, September 13, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday suspended approval for a building project planned for Jerusalem’s Western Wall plaza. The move comes amid sky-high tensions with Palestinians, sparked by allegations that Israel has been seeking to change the status quo at the adjacent Temple Mount holy site.

The controversial plan to build an office building and museum at the plaza was already slated to be approved by the National Planning and Building Council. But then the Prime Minister’s Office pulled the permit ahead of the council’s vote, citing the ongoing security situation, Army Radio reported.

The 3,700-square-meter (40,000-square-foot) project, dubbed Beit Haliba, was backed by Netanyahu; a number of government ministries; and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the organization charged with overseeing the site.

Several members of the municipal council were reportedly angered by the last-minute intervention, and one anonymous council member claimed the move was an indication the prime minister had surrendered to Palestinian terrorism.

Since Beit Haliba was proposed in 2012, Palestinians have voiced their opposition to the project, arguing that the new buildings in the Western Wall plaza would be a violation of the status quo around the Temple Mount, which houses the al-Aqsa Mosque.

In recent weeks, Palestinians have reacted violently to fresh allegations that Israel has been seeking to curtail Muslim access to the mount and alter long-standing rules that ban Jews from praying there.

Although Israel has repeatedly denied attempting to change the status quo, the perceived shift in policy sparked a wave of violence, including a series of fatal stabbings and rock-throwing attacks.

Facing accusations that the government has curtailed West Bank construction, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon confirmed Thursday that Israel was continuing to expand its West Bank settlement enterprise, but was keeping it under wraps in the interest of maintaining international support for its efforts to quell the current violence.

“Building in Judea and Samaria was not frozen for even a minute,” Ya’alon said, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name during a joint press conference with Netanyahu.

“We built in the past. We’re building in the present. We will build in the future,” Ya’alon declared. But in certain circumstances, like the current wave of terrorism, it’s better not to draw attention to Israeli construction beyond the 1967 lines, he indicated.

According to Netanyahu, Israel currently enjoys strong international backing for its anti-terror operations. However, the new measures aimed at curbing the low-level violence have met with some criticism abroad.

Those new preventive actions include penetrating deep into Arab neighborhoods, changing open-fire directives, introducing higher minimum punishments for people who throw stones or Molotov cocktails, and fining the parents of minors who violate the public order.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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