‘Bridge plans must consider women’s Kotel area'

Supreme Court says any new decision on Mughrabi Bridge plans are subject to judicial review.

women praying at wester wall 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
women praying at wester wall 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
State planning authorities must examine plans to expand the women’s section at the Western Wall as part of reconstructions of the Mughrabi Bridge, and must take into consideration security issues, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.
The decision came in response to a petition filed by the state and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the state body responsible for maintaining the Kotel, against an administrative court ruling that forbade expansion of the women’s section as part of plans to reconstruct the controversial bridge.
The court’s ruling is the latest stage in a protracted legal battle over plans to redevelop the Mughrabi Bridge, a temporary wooden structure and the sole point of access for non-Muslims to the Temple Mount from the Western Wall.
Israel built the wooden bridge in 2004, after the previous structure, an earthen mound known as the Mughrabi Ascent, collapsed.
A 2007 decision by local planning committees to replace the wooden bridge with a permanent structure sparked widespread riots in Jerusalem and in Jordan, after the Antiquities Authority carried out archeological excavations on the Mughrabi Ascent. In Gaza, Islamic Jihad fired rockets at Sderot in protest against the excavations.
The excavations were part of mandatory planning procedures to avoid destroying important antiquities. However, Muslim leaders in Israel and elsewhere accused the authorities of attempting to destroy the Aksa Mosque.
After legal consultation, the authorities decided to freeze their initial plans and submit a new plan to Jerusalem’s district planning and construction committee, which included a request to expand the cramped women’s section by including a prayer section under the bridge.
In 2009, Islamic historian Dr. Mahmoud Massalha petitioned the appeals subcommittee of the National Planning Council against the decision, arguing that the aim of the permanent bridge and the archeological excavations was to expand the Western Wall Plaza.
When the appeals subcommittee rejected his appeal, Massalha petitioned the Jerusalem Administrative Affairs Court against the plan.
That court partially accepted Massalha’s petition, holding that the state was permitted to build the permanent bridge but not to expand the Western Wall plaza to create more room for prayer. Judge Moussia Arad said that the original plan approved by the planning authorities had been to create the bridge and not expand the plaza to add extra prayer space.
In their Supreme Court appeal, the state and the Western Wall Heritage Society argued that about seven million people visit the Western Wall every year and preventing the expansion of the women’s section was “an absurd result.”
In Tuesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court accepted the appeal, but not in the way the state and the Western Wall Heritage Society requested.
The panel of justices Miriam Naor, Esther Hayut and Neal Handel said that the national planning council’s appeals subcommittee had been wrong when it found that expanding the women’s section had been removed from the agenda, since the regional planning committee had explicitly endorsed it.
Naor said that the appeals subcommittee had in any case not discussed the matter, and so returned the issue to them to make a decision on the issue of expanding the plaza.
The justice added that as the Administrative Affairs Court had noted, the purpose of the plans was not to expand the Western Wall Plaza for prayer but to replace the temporary bridge to allow access to the Temple Mount.
“It should be taken into consideration that this is a holy place designated for seclusion and prayer,” Naor said. “The physical status quo should also be taken into account, not just the normative status quo.”
Naor added that the planners also needed to account for the unique security needs of the site.
“The history of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, including the events that took place because of the explosive nature of the site, are well known,” she said.
The court also noted that any new decision by the National Planning Council would be subject to judicial review.
Attorney Kais Nasser, representing Massalha, noted in response to Tuesday’s ruling that the Supreme Court had said the state could not expand the Western Wall Plaza until the National Planning Council had examined all the relevant issues, including security implications.
Nasser added that his client, Massalha, would state his claims to the national committee.
“In our view, expanding the Western Wall Plaza, as set out in the plans, is prohibited and cannot be made without the consent and cooperation of the relevant bodies, including the Temple Mount Waqf,” Nasser told The Jerusalem Post.
Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz said in response to the decision that it was vitally important to expand the women’s section as the current area is not enough to cope with the number of people visiting every year.
He also argued that the plans do not alter the status quo and expressed hope that the planning and construction committee would approve the plans to expand the women’s section.
Rabinowitz added that the character of the site should remain as it has been in the past, a place of traditional prayer with separate areas for men and women.
“It is a place for all Jews to come, but it is impossible to accommodate every different denomination, so the character of the Western Wall, which has been the same for hundreds of years, should be preserved so everyone can come and pray.”
Women are prevented from performing religious practices traditionally done by men in Orthodox Jewish practice, such as reading from a Torah and wearing a prayer shawl.
Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the Women of the Wall organization and director of the legal advocacy center for Progressive Judaism in Israel, said following Tuesday’s ruling that she was less concerned with the technical expansion of the women’s section and more interested in what women are allowed to do at the site.
“There should be access to the Western Wall for everyone, and we should stop acting as if the Western Wall is an Orthodox synagogue,” said Hoffman, who was arrested in 2010 for holding a Torah scroll in the women’s section of the plaza. “Women can’t pray out loud, dance, read from the Torah, hold a lulav, put on tefillin, or read a megilla.
But we will live to see the day when the wall is the true representation of the Jewish people and lives up to the Biblical verse ‘For My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’”