Wheelchair access to Tomb of Patriarchs gets final approval

Elevator will serve people of all faiths to access the historic Hebron holy site.

4.5.20, 16:04
(IMAGE: Artistic rendition of future elevator and handicapped access at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.)
Government approval was given for the creation of a handicapped access elevator at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett approved the move on Sunday after an arduous process which involved multiple government agencies.
Foreign Minister Bennett stated, "the time has come to move forward. We have green-lighted the elevator project to end the many years of discrimination at the site. Every person, irrespective of whether or not they are disabled, should have the opportunity to visit the tomb, which is an important Jewish heritage site." Bennett added, "the tomb belongs to us after Abraham bought it with his own money 3,800 years ago. It is a great reward to have a role in it." His reference was regarding Genesis chapter 23 in which the Jewish patriarch buys the cave and the surrounding land as a burial plot for his beloved wife Sarah.

The 2,000-year-old structure was built by King Herod the Great to house the Cave of Machpela, burial site of the Biblical founding fathers and mothers. The site has been revered for generations and is currently divided into separate Muslim and Jewish prayer areas. Considered one of the oldest still-standing buildings being used for the same purpose for which it was constructed, the structure has only steep staircases for entrances.

The project would have required the approval of the Palestinian Authority run Hebron Municipality. However, after years of refusing to cooperate, an ultimate was issued last July by the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli body that oversees civilian life in Judea and Samaria. COGAT demanded that unless the PA participate Israel reserved the right to declare eminent domain and build the elevator without their input.

Bennett authorized the Civil Administration’s Higher Planning Council to appropriate administrative planning powers necessary from the Hebron Municipality so the project could be completed.

The project has already been approved by the Prime Minister's Office, the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry. The planning stages have already received archaeological and engineering permits to allow access to the prayer halls without making any far-reaching changes in the ancient structure.

Brigadier General Kamil Abu Rukon, head of the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories was instructed by the Defense Ministry to “take all action necessary to carry out the task, including expropriating land near the site, in order to advance the project."

Over 1 million people visited the site in 2019, an all-time record. Currently during the coronavirus pandemic, live-streaming videos of prayer services have been offered on the Jewish Community of Hebron Facebook page. For 700 years the site was off limits to non-Muslims starting with the Mamluke period and ending with the Six Day War in 1967.
One ardent supporter was the late Rabbi Eliyahu Baskshi-Doron, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel who died in April from coronavirus. The wheelchair-bound rabbi was lifted up and carried up the stairs to the site. Similarly, disabled people have also experienced difficulty accessing the site over the years, leading disabled-rights activists to lobby the Knesset for a solution. A Knesset committee meeting was held in late 2018 in which Minister of Social Equality Gila Gamliel stated, "this is a civil issue. The elevator can serve both Jewish and Muslim disabled people."
A wide variety of elected officials this year have joined the call to construct an elevator. Mossi Raz, a former Member of Knesset from the left-wing Meretz party called for wheelchair access. Despite being an ardent opponent of the Jewish community, Channel 20 reported he sent a personal letter to the Palestinian Authority Minister of Religious Affairs and to the PA mayor of Hebron asking them to approve the permit.
The Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law requires every public structure to be fully accessible to the disabled.
Member of Knesset Member Michal Shir, who was an advocate of the project, stated she congratulates the Defense Minister "who responded to the moral call to make the Cave of the Patriarchs accessible... and even if it is delayed, better late than never."
Member of Knesset Keti Shitrit stated, "I welcome and am satisfied with the announcement of Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, led by Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Israel Katz's contribution for the approval of the commencement of construction for access to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron." She noted that a diverse group of advocates lobbied for the project to "bring a suitable solution for people with disabilities who want to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs."
The Btsalmo organization for disabled rights stated, "this is a historic day. Hundreds of thousands of disabled people have been waiting for access. The liberation of Hebron is now complete. Now anyone can visit and talk to the forefathers and mothers regardless of limitation."

The Jewish community of Hebron stated, "we welcome another step towards accessing the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs for people with disabilities. The Jewish community of Hebron thanks Defense Minister Naftali Bennett for this right and just decision to create access to the Cave of the Patriarchs via elevator. Thank you to all the partners along the way: the prime minister and the foreign minister who gave their consent, the many Members of Knesset who repeatedly pushed for the need for tens of thousands of disabled and elderly people, and the many field activists led by Shai Glick and his organization. Once the political barrier has been removed, we look forward to the rapid advancement of all planning and execution procedures for the abode of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of our people."
In February, the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Security Committee discussed the matter. MK Ayelet Shaked urged the Knesset to approve the handicapped access, even without PA's approval. "Since we're not managing to obtain the agreement of the Palestinians, we need to move forward," she stated. 
At the meeting, MK Moti Yogev added, "I am happy that there is a discussion to make the Cave of the Patriarchs accessible to those with disabilities. This is a discussion that we initiated over a year and a half ago, in the subcommittee for issues in Judea and Samaria, and it has continued in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee led by MK Gabi Ashkenazi (Blue and White). Thank you. I am happy that all the Committee's members have understood and joined together on this issue of connection to our forefathers' and foremothers' graves."
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