Defense Minister Benny Gantz has decided to freeze the handicapped access project at the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron until an unknown date, according to an announcement on Wednesday.
It was Gantz who previously advanced the project. In July of 2020 he stated, “it is unacceptable that a site as important to both Jews and Muslims as the Tomb of the Patriarchs would be inaccessible to those who are disabled.”
The long-planned project would see an elevator, wheelchair ramp and other features to allow the disabled to enter the holy site, who houses the Cave of Machpela, burial site of the Biblical founding fathers and mothers.
Planner have spent years trying to design a modern elevator that would maintain the ancient aesthetics of the 2,000-year-old structure built by King Herod the Great to house the Biblical site while taking into account the structural integrity of the building.
Another elevator is currently being constructed at another Jewish holy site, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Proponents note that all public sites needs handicapped access and lament the current situation in which wheelchair bound worshipers must be carried up the steep steps.
The elevator would be built by Israel and benefit both Jews and Muslims who each have a separate entrance to the site.
Opponents of the project say any action taken, even for the benefit of the disabled would further cement Israel’s sovereignty over Biblical holy sites in the region. The Palestinian Authority which controls 80% of Hebron has tried and failed in court to prevent the project.
PA Supreme Shari’ah Judge Mahmoud Al-Habbash called the elevator a “war crime.” The Muslim Waqf, which has shared maintenance of the site is also opposed because they say the site is strictly Islamic and should be accessible to Muslims only.
The mayor of the Palestinian Authority side of Hebron, Tayseer Abu Sneineh, petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court several months ago to stop the project. The Court rejected the petition and ordered Mayor Abu Sneina to pay court costs. They determined that freedom of worship superseded any claims the PA Hebron Municipality had in terms of property rights to the area next to the Tomb where the elevator and wheelchair ramp are to be built.
Shai Glick of the B’Tsalmo disabled rights organization has lamented the delay calling it a “surrender to terrorism.” Over the years he has attended numerous Knesset sessions to advocate for disabled access to historic sites and public parks, and has advocated for the Hebron elevator in particular.
Many Members of Knesset decried freezing the project including MK Keti Shitrit who stated that all the necessary permits were obtained and constructed was hoped to start after Passover.
MK Orit Struck said it was a humanitarian issue that was to benefit the elderly and disabled.