Humanitarianism Hebron Style
In February this year, shortly before the third round of elections held within the space of 12 months, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, headed by Gabi Ashkenazi, discussed rendering the Tomb of the Patriarchs (known as “The Ibrahimi Mosque” by Muslims) in Hebron accessible to persons with disabilities. This has followed pressure mounted by the settlers for two decades to make the site wheelchair accessible.
Members of the committee, the ministers and the Civil Administration, all agreed that the issue should be advanced. MK Keti Shitrit (Likud) explained that this is a humanitarian, and not a political deliberation, or in other words that criticism of the idea is a mark of ill-will and inflexibility. Based on what the MKs and the Civil Administration have said, it could be understood that the villains of the story are the Palestinians who oppose accessibility arrangements that would serve both Jews and Muslims.
The settlers’ efforts were successful and yesterday Minister of Defense, Naftali Bennett, gave the project the greenlight after receiving the Prime Minister’s consent over the weekend. The approval followed Attorney General Mandelblit’s determination two weeksthat there was no legal obstacle to expropriating the area for the purpose of constructing facilities designed to make the site accessible.
While the struggle is couched in terms of concern for the disabled and elderly who wish to pray or visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque, there are indications that the struggle is more political in nature than it is humanitarian. And this political struggle has both international and local aspects.
The plan to make the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque accessible is not merely a matter of a minor building addition. The Civil Administration intends to put up a structure at the cost of at least 5.5 million NIS, including an lift, a sleeve to connect the lift shaft to the structure of the tomb and leveling the ground so as to enable worshippers to pass through. Additionally, the administration will need to expropriate land that at present belongs to the Islamic Waqf. In other words, in terms of the scope of the work, making the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque accessible to persons with disabilities involves a significant change in the structure.
The Tourism Ministry has already given approximately a half million NIS to finance the planning of the lift. The Ministry also committed to further invest two and a half million NIS for its construction. This is not the first time that the Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin has supported and promoted plans conceived by settlers. In recent years, Levin has allocated hundreds of millions of shekels in public funds for tourism and the development of heritage sites in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
On the international level, the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque is a UNESCO World Heritage Site designated in 2017, and is one of several such sites located in Palestine. On the same occasion the site was inscribed on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. Israel objected to the designation, but because it is a state party to the 1972 World Heritage Convention, it is obligated, among other things, to refrain from damaging any site on the list. It is not by coincidence that after Israel left UNESCO in 2019, it remained a signatory to the convention. UNESCO has designated approximately ten sites in Israel, including Masada, Meggido and the White City in Tel Aviv as World Heritage sites.
A further international aspect (which was marginalized in recent years), is the Oslo Accords that stipulated that the Hebron Municipality has responsibility for the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque. In other words, according to the Oslo Accords, Israel recognized the importance of the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque for Palestinians and even agreed that the site ought to be placed under Palestinian auspices.
Going ahead with the plan, in effect, constitutes an annulment of the agreement that stipulates the Palestinians are responsible for the site and a reversal of the implicit recognition of the site as a Palestinian heritage site. Israel indeed has the power to trample the Palestinians and it does so in various ways on a daily basis, but the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque is not just a holy site but also a symbol in the national struggle. Israel’s decision to seize responsibility for the site from the Hebron municipality and the Palestinians sends a clear political message that Israel is reneging on agreements that were signed with the Palestinians in Hebron. Beyond the precedent that will enable the settlers in the future to demand additional changes at the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque, this is also a precedent that could play out at other sites under the responsibility of the Islamic Waqf.
Experience has shown us that what begins in Hebron percolates into other places including Jerusalem. It begins with a seemingly rational demand to benefit the disabled or the general public and evolves into a new status quo. The expected change in Hebron has not escaped the attention of members of the Temple movement and they will know how to present their demands to the government. If Israel can repudiate agreements with the Palestinians in Hebron and expropriate land from the Waqf, it would seem that accepting what appears to be the far more modest demands by the Temple movement to pray or to walk about the Temple Mount complex freely is not so far-fetched.
In the reality of Hebron and East Jerusalem, a change involving only several meters at a historic or holy place is not free of political considerations and often it is part of long-term strategy. While it is necessary to tend to the needs and interests of persons with disabilities, the extremists who presume to speak on their behalf must be prevented from forging Israeli policy, even if it is only a matter of a lift and an access path.