Why is Benny Gantz delaying the approved Hebron accessibility project?

The leftist NGO claiming the project will harm the site asked to see how disabled reach the Tower of London - except they don't. Op-ed.

Sheri Oz ,

Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron
Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron
Flash 90

Why is MK Zvi Hauser (Likud), of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, letting COGAT, the civil administration body for Judea and Samaria, hamstring the Cave of the Patriarchs accessibility project?

MK Bezalel Smotrich asked the same question, addressing it to Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz.

COGAT is letting itself get tied up because of a supposed human rights organization fighting the human rights of the disabled, the elderly and young children to pray in the Cave of the Patriarchs; currently the prayer halls are totally inaccessible to them because reaching them involves the equivalent of a three-story climb.

What a disappointment to all who saw their ability to safely pray at the holy site just over the horizon!

What is Happening Now?

Finally, in February 2020, all the documents approving the project were signed by the requisite ministers -- the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister and the Finance Minister. After years of attempting to coordinate the accessibility project together with the Hebron municipality and being ignored, the only way to move forward at this point was for Israel to expropriate the land required to build the elevator and a path from the parking area up to the base of the site.

The expropriation order was approved by the Justice Ministry, Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister on May 12, 2020 and COGAT then had to inform the Hebron municipality of the decision. Protocol requires that 60 days be given for objections to be raised by the public.

One day before the deadline for submitting objections, Gantz met with COGAT and:

“… ordered the advancement of all processes, including legal processes, examination of complaints regarding the plans, and summaries of the sources of funding. Following the completion of these processes, Gantz ordered that a tender be issued for the construction itself.”

However, it appears that COGAT can now hold up the construction of the elevator should they decide to do so, in spite of the fact that, in an email, they stated that it "is an important humanitarian project". On August 4, COGAT held a meeting to hear objections and the minutes make it clear that there will be further meetings.

The office of MK Michael Malchieli (Shas) pointed out the absurdity of the situation in which a body that is meant to carry out decisions reached by the policy making branch of government now has the power to delay, perhaps even permanently, implementation of a project they were instructed to execute.

Two objections were filed: one by the Hebron municipality and the other by an Israeli NGO called Emek Shaveh. Hebron municipality loudly complains that the Israeli "occupation" is stealing land and that Israel is using a so-called humanitarian excuse as cover for what they claim is an illegal act. This response was totally predictable and consistent with their refusal to discuss the project with Israel.

Possible Beneficial Side Effect of Israeli Land Expropriation for the Elevator

Interestingly, however, Samer Shehadeh, the lawyer representing Hebron Municipality at the meeting, gave a different impression. He commented a number of times about the importance of the project and asked for documents detailing the specific design plans of the three alternatives considered.

Many Arabs in Hebron may have been in favor of making the site accessible but they could not appear to be cooperating with Israel because that is not a safe thing for a Palestinian Arab to do. With our unilateral act of expropriating the land, we solved this problem for them.

An Israeli NGO against Human Rights

An objection that I consider particularly heinous was filed by an Israeli NGO I had never heard of before preparing this article.

Emek Shaveh proclaims on its website that it is:

“... an Israeli NGO working to prevent the politicization of archaeology in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

MK Malchieli's office expressed astonishment: “The Cave of the Patriarchs is holy for us. Why would we harm it in any way?”
However, it becomes very clear that their work is absolutely political.

What are their arguments against the accessibility elevator? They claim in a Facebook post that the project will damage the archaeological, historical and religious site due to amateurish planning and decision making that was political and not professional. They go on to claim that the Archaeological Unit of COGAT did nothing more than give general guidelines to the project and that there was no serious consideration of alternative designs nor research into the accessibility designs at other similar sites in Israel or around the world.

This is a remarkable post given that it was made after the NGO had already attended a meeting at which it was made clear that the Archaeological Unit was closely involved with all stages of design and there were two other major alternative designs considered. All three options were investigated regarding complexity, potential damage to the building, costs and utility for the intended population. COGAT agreed to send the detailed comparisons to both Emek Shaveh and Hebron municipality. The former should have already received their copy by the time they put up the post or shortly afterward, and this hollow objection can thus been seen to be for propaganda purposes only.

Regarding their argument that there was no research into accessibility arrangements at other important historical sites around the world, Emek Shaveh Chairman Yonaton Mizrahi raised the example of the Tower of London:

… there are historical and religious sites around the world. There is a reason that I do not know of examples of erecting such a massive construction on the outside of the building [as this elevator would be]. ... Why, for argument's sake, did they not do that at the Tower of London? It [an external elevator] causes serious harm to a historic building. ... How do [the disabled] get to the Tower of London, for instance?

Gila Zionit from the COGAT Environmental Protection Unit replied:

They don't.”

If Mizrahi had done his research before the meeting, he would have easily found the accessibility guide for the Tower of London, in which it is clear that the wheelchair-bound and other disabled individuals need not even try to visit the site. Accusing the Israeli elevator design team of not having done their research is ironic, to say the least. Furthermore, comparing the Tower of London with the Cave of the Patriarchs shows Mizrahi's total lack of comprehension regarding the significance of the latter to Jews, Moslems and Christians.

He makes his political views clear when he refers to the Cave of the Patriarchs as not being in Israel. He seems to agree with the UNESCO decision to label it as a "Palestinian" heritage sight. And he seems to agree with them that the building is in danger because Israel wants to add an elevator in order to allow the disabled and elderly access to the prayer halls.

Hebron municipality did not even go that far.

To Emek Shaveh's accusation that Israel is not considering the potential damage to the building, MK Malchieli's office expressed astonishment:

The Cave of the Patriarchs is holy for us. Why would we harm it in any way?

It is unclear why COGAT did not reject these empty objections out of hand.

MKs Gideon Saar (Likud) and Malchieli each sent letters to MK Zvi Hauser (Blue&White), Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, asking Hauser to call an immediate session of the Committee to advance the accessibility project against the delay tactics used by COGAT. There has been no response.

Shai Glick, CEO of the human rights organization, B'tsalmo,

Close to two million people of all religions, from Israel and around the world, visit the Cave of the Patriarchs each year. There is no other site like it in the world that is not accessible! This situation is a disgrace. And it is a serious infraction of human rights. Each moment COGAT delays moving forward with this project is an injustice. We ask the Defense Minister to remind the staff at COGAT that their job is to take care of human rights and not to lend an ear to radical leftwing organizations that care only about hurting the State of Israel, the byproduct of which is the prevention of millions of disabled people from worshipping at the holy site.”

It appears that celebrations marking final government approval for proceeding with this major project were premature. A very sad state of affairs for sure.

Sheri Oz blogs at Israel Diaries Her opinion pieces have appeared on: Israel National News / Jerusalem Post / Times of Israel / Haaretz and Algemeiner