Israel to issue tender for controversial Hebron elevator project

Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s predecessor, Yamina party head Naftali Bennett, promoted the project and ensured that it received all its authorizations.

Tomb of the Patriarchs  (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Tomb of the Patriarchs
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
The defense minister plans to issue a tender for the controversial project to make the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron handicap accessible, including construction of an elevator.
“It is unacceptable that a site as important to both Jews and Muslims as the Tomb of the Patriarchs would be inaccessible to those who are disabled,” Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on Tuesday.
It was his first statement in support of the project for the ancient biblical site, which has garnered objections from Palestinians and left-wing Israeli groups.
Gantz’s predecessor, Yamina Party head Naftali Bennett, promoted the project and ensured that it received all its authorizations. This included the unusual step of Israeli seizure of planning power from the Palestinian-run Municipality of Hebron, a move that violated the 1997 Hebron agreement.
The project is now under the auspices of the IDF’s Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria. Gantz said that making the site accessible to those with disabilities is a humanitarian issue.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs is housed in the only fully intact Herodian structure. There are two main entrances, one for the Ibrahimi Mosque and one for the Jewish sanctuaries. Those sanctuaries can be accessed only by climbing a steep stairwell, thereby making it prohibitive for those who are physically incapable of making it up the stairs.
Hebron’s Jewish community and right-wing politicians have long argued that the site must be handicap accessible. But opponents have argued that Israel does not have the authority to make this change and that its plans harm the architectural integrity of the site.
Both the Israeli NGO Emek Shaveh and Palestinians from Hebron have filed objections with the Civil Administration with regard to the project.
The plan “is more political than humanitarian and marks a breach in the status quo in Hebron, creating additional friction between Jews and Muslims in a place which is already suffering from extreme tension,” Emek Shaveh said.
In the objection it filed, Emek Shaveh took issue with the approvals granted for the project during the last election cycle, noting that it was “illegal” for the transitional government to have taken action on this matter.
The plan runs contrary to an international agreement to which Israel is a signatory, namely the Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage sites, Emek Shaveh said.
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization placed in 2017 Hebron’s Old Town and the tomb on its list of World Heritage in Danger sites when it inscribed the site to Palestine on its World Heritage List.
The project stands to harm the historical and architectural integrity of the structure, given that the elevator shaft will be a modern structure that “will not resonate with its surroundings” and will “conceal parts of the” tomb, Emek Shaveh said.
No preservation plan has been filed as part of the project, and the Civil Administration’s Staff Office for Archaeology has not signed off on the project or even given its opinion, Emek Shaveh said.
The Sovereignty Movement, in contrast, hailed Gantz’s decision.
“This step combines a basic humanitarian need with a demonstration of sovereignty and strengthens the connection to the heritage of the forefathers and mothers buried at the cave,” the movement said.