High Court Petition to regulate the religious status of the Western Wall tunnels
This morning (Monday, December 5) Emek Shaveh submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice against the Minister of Religious Services concerning the sanctity of the Western Wall tunnels situated under the Muslim Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. The petition follows a written confirmation from the minister’s office stating that the Western Wall tunnels are a sacred site exclusively for the Jewish people, despite the fact that one of its openings is located on the Via Dolorosa, sacred to Christians, that the tunnels were excavated beneath Islamic, Christian and Jewish religious structures and that over the last decade, the Israel Antiquities Authority has been excavating hundreds of square meters underground, thereby endlessly expanding the area defined as the Western Wall. According to the antiquities law, in order to excavate a sacred site it is necessary to assemble a ministerial committee and receive its approval. However, this procedure was never undertaken with respect to the Western Wall Tunnels. Recognizing these underground spaces as sacred only to the Jewish people has consequences for the archaeology of the area and carries political implications.
In the petition, we demand a limitation of the area declared as sacred to the Jewish people and a clear delineation of its boundaries. In today’s reality, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has control over Jerusalem’s ancient sites, while archaeology is used as a tool for adding and expanding sites sacred to Jews.
Hundreds of meters have been excavated over the last decade as part of the Western Wall tunnel project, with the main archaeological excavation activity taking place in the Old City. The decision to sanctify the underground city for the Jewish religion only, means sanctifying structures from different periods for the Jews, from the Second Temple period, through Roman pagan structures, Byzantine and Crusader, Mamluk and Ottoman. — all this beneath the homes of residents of the Muslim Quarter.
The antiquities law (section 29c) does not allow archaeological excavations in a sacred site without approval from a ministerial committee. By law, the committee must include the Minister of Culture, in charge of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Minister of Religious Services and the Minister of Justice. The Israel Antiquities Authority is the main (if not the only) entity excavating the underground Western Wall tunnels. Based on a response by the Ministry of Religious Services from November 6, the tunnels are recognized as a sacred site, even though a ministerial committee was never assembled to approve these archaeological excavations.
As we see it, these excavations are being used as a tool for the development of an underground quarter beneath the Old City, which the state seeks to sanctify for the Jews, but is not willing to do so legally and responsibly – through a ministerial committee. In Israel of 2016, archaeological excavations are more a religious and political tool than a scientific endeavor.
Background on the Western Wall Tunnels:
In 1969 the Ministry of Religious Services initiated the excavation of a tunnel along the Western Wall, beneath the built up and populated area of the Muslim Quarter adjacent to Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. This excavation continued until the beginning of the 1990s. Although this was carried out by a government office, the excavation was considered an underground enterprise for years, since the Department of Antiquities (predecessor to the IAA) never granted them a license and there is no documentation of their findings.
Initially there was no exit from the tunnels – visitors entered and exited from the same opening, near the Western Wall plaza. In 1993 its expansion to the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim quarter was completed, but breaking open the exit was delayed to 1996. Opening the tunnel resulted in violent protests and shootings between Israelis and Palestinians all over the West Bank, in which dozens of people were killed and hundreds injured. When the struggles ceased, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation began to use the northern exit of the tunnel as a tool for increasing the number of visitors to the Western Wall. In this way, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation expanded its territory into the heart of the Muslim Quarter.
Since 2007, archaeological excavations have been conducted within the Western Wall tunnels along with additional excavations in spaces stretching from HaGai/al Wad St. (the western border) to the Western Wall tunnels (the eastern border) beneath the homes of residents in the Muslim Quarter. The excavation area is estimated to be hundreds of square meters in area. Findings from practically every important period in the city’s history were unearthed: a large Mamluk hammam (Hammam al-Ein), structures from the Crusader period, remains from the Byzantine period, some of which were originally built in the days of Aelia Capitolina (Jerusalem of the late Roman period), and remains from the ancient Roman period, among others.
Click here for more information on the Old City tunnels project.