Press Release – High Court petition demands a halt to Western Wall Tunnels excavations until obtaining approval by a ministerial committee
Emek Shaveh submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice today (June 26, 2017) demanding that the Israel Antiquities Authority be instructed to cease excavations and other archaeological work within the Western Wall Tunnels until a ministerial committee convenes to approve archaeological excavations at holy sites.
According to the Antiquities Law, excavations within a sacred site require the approval of a ministerial committee which includes the Minister of Culture, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Religious Affairs. At a hearing of Emek Shaveh’s petition to the High Court regarding the sanctity of the Western Wall Tunnels (HCJ 16/9392), the court accepted the State’s position that all the Western Wall tunnels are holy to Judaism. Therefore, according to law, a ministerial committee must convene and decide whether to approve the archaeological excavations carried out in the tunnels. Such a decision cannot be undertaken solely by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
To read the petition (in Hebrew): Court petition – halt tunnels excavations
To date, all excavations within the Western Wall Tunnels were given the green light by the Israel Antiquities Authority. However now that the HCJ has accepted the State’s position that the tunnels are a holy site, it is clear that by law a ministerial committee must be convened. Ostensibly, the convening of a ministerial committee would seem to be merely a matter of formality. We contend that due to the sensitivity of excavations in holy sites in general, and in particular the Western Wall tunnels area and the spaces running beneath the Muslim Quarter and adjacent to the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif, the senior political echelon must take responsibility and either approve or prohibit excavations in these sites.
The Western Wall Tunnels run from the Western Wall plaza beneath the Muslim Quarter to the Via Dolorosa. But the underground spaces extend way beyond what are known as “the tunnels.” They consist of hundreds of meters that have been excavated over a long period and now house underground synagogues, museums and tourist attractions. The location of the excavations, and the fact that extensive development work is being done far from the public eye makes it a matter of urgency for the political echelon to be involved in decision-making in an area sacred to hundreds of millions of believers around the world. Past experience has taught us of the dangers of careless management of this area and how prone it is to deteriorate into violence.
The petition to the High Court of Justice is based on Section 29(c) of the Antiquities Law-1978: “With respect to an antiquities site used for religious purposes or dedicated to a religious purpose, the Director shall not grant approval for the excavation or for one of the activities enumerated in subsection (A) except with the approval of a ministerial committee comprising the Minister as Chairman, the Minister of Religious Affairs and the Minister of Justice.”
As stated, the petition was submitted after the High Court of Justice accepted, in March 2017, the State’s position that all the tunnels and underground spaces that originate at the Western Wall plaza are holy to the Jewish people.