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Photo by: Ariel Jerozolimski
Kotel Plaza renovations plan gets initial okay
By MELANIE LIDMAN
05/10/2010
Plan is expected to spark outrage among Muslim groups, who are opposed to any construction or archeological excavations at the site.
 
A new plan to completely renovate the Western Wall Plaza was approved by the Jerusalem Local Planning and Building Committee on Monday, paving the way for the most drastic changes to the layout of the area since the plaza was created after the Six Day War.

“The goal of expanding the entrances and exits of the Western Wall plaza and will give us a solution for allowing large numbers of worshipers and visitors to enter at once, as well as emergency exits,” Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the chief rabbi of the Western Wall, told The Jerusalem Post.

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The plan is expected to spark outrage among Muslim groups, who are opposed to any construction or archeological excavations at the site.

Women’s groups are also expressing concern that the plan will not take their needs into account.

The current plaza was created immediately after the Six Day War in 1967, when the neighborhood next to the Western Wall, known as the Moroccan Quarter, was razed to make a large plaza.

The new plan, which is still in the very initial stages of approval, calls for a large underground plaza to replace the current main entrance, located at Dung Gate. A new visitor’s center will replace the current police building, with areas for educational programming, additional bathrooms, an auditorium, lecture halls, and an exhibition space for the archeological discoveries in the area.

“The number of visitors has increased by 500% at the Western Wall in recent years, and is expected to grow even more, but the infrastructure has remained the same,” Rabinovitch said in a statement. “Hundreds of workers at the Wall, including security guards, guides, and management, are working under impossible circumstances.”

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation claims that more than 15 million visitors come to the Western Wall every year, though the municipality put the figure at eight million. Both expect the number of visitors to the site to double in the next 10 years.

The proposal is a joint project by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Jerusalem Municipality, the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, with involvement from the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter. The plan was designed by architect Gavriel Kertesz, who has been involved with many historical architectural projects, including the renovations of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, overlooking the Old City.

The plan must still pass a number of hurdles before construction starts; the complicated approval process is expected to take years, if it is passed at all. The proposal must be approved by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, part of the Interior Ministry, as well as pass a number of periods during the which the public can file objections.

Women’s groups and Muslim worshipers are worried by proposal.

“It looks like the architecture is going to now set in stone, so to speak, the perspective that women are spectators and men are worshipers,” said Anat Hoffman, director of Women of the Wall, a monthly women’s prayer group that advocates for equal treatment for women at the site.

“There are partitions that are suggested where women can observe men, but men can’t observe women,” she said.

Part of the plan proposes a moveable mehitza, or barrier, between the men and women’s sections.

“The thing is, I’d like to move it all the way out of Jerusalem, but a moveable mehitza is interesting because it allows us to be sensitive to who’s coming to the wall,” said Hoffman.

“There’s no problem for the women, the new entrance will not eat into the women’s section at all,” Rabinovitch said, in response to concerns expressed by the women’s groups. “On the contrary, after the plan is approved, it will allow us to enlarge the women’s section, in accordance with a court decision.”

Any excavations or construction in the area usually produces outrage in the Muslim community, both here and abroad. Islamic groups say they were not consulted as the proposal was drawn up. Any excavations may upset the tenuous balance in the area. In February 2007, construction of a temporary bridge to the Mugrabi Gate entrance of the Temple Mount sparked international Muslim protests, fueled by distorted media reports of what was actually taking place.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what we do, some of the Muslims will always complain, but these are for political reasons… we’re not trying to do this for political reasons,” said Daniel Shukrun, the project director from the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter.

Shukrun’s company is also working on the construction of an elevator next to the Aish Hatorah yeshiva, announced in August, which will make the Western Wall more accessible to the disabled.

“We’ve really been trying to fix the area with different types of improvements,” said Shukrun. “But this area can’t always provide an optimal solution to all the people making requests.”
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