Panel nixes expansion at Western Wall
Detractors of gov't-sanctioned expansion says panel 'almost certainly prevented inter-religious flare-up.'
The Interior Ministry's Jerusalem District Planning and Construction Committee approved the original plan of the reconstruction project for the Temple Mount's Mugrabi Gate on the condition that certain changes be made in it. At the end of a hearing some two weeks ago, the committee accepted the objections submitted by the Ir Amim organization to the plan for transformation of the area underneath the new bridge into a space for Jewish prayers. In so doing, it rejected an initiative of the Western Wall's rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, which had gained the support of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, to take advantage of the collapse of the bridge as an opportunity to expand the women's section at the site.
The bridge leading from the Western Wall plaza collapsed in 2004, and the "rescue dig" conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority ahead of construction of a new bridge sparked the anger of the Muslim Waqf, the Arab world and especially Jordan and Turkey. The significance of this latest decision is that it will now be necessary to revise the construction plans according to the committee's directives before a building permit is issued.
The committee also decided to order the preservation of findings from all historical eras, including the Ottoman period, as well as of remains connected to the Mughrabi Quarter, contrary to the spirit of the government decision on the matter of November 2007, which stated "the Antiquities Authority will eliminate any finding that is not archaeological, while taking into account the elements of preservation, aesthetics, security, safety and possible social hazards." The significance of the decision not to preserve any finding that is not "archaeological," that is, findings dated after 1700, would have meant disregarding any trace of the period of Ottoman rule.
The governments of Jordan and Turkey, as well as UNESCO, are now working on a translation of the decision and will soon announce their response. In a decision passed by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee for the preservation of world heritage sites, during a meeting in Quebec City that ended a few days before the district committee convened, the international organization called on the Israeli authorities to limit the archeological activity at the Mughrabim Ascent exclusively to work for the reconstruction and stabilization of the site and not to adapt it for new uses. The committee asked for the final bridge designs to be sent to UNESCO's World Heritage Center. Ir Amim's legal adviser, attorney Daniel Seidemann, welcomed the committee's decision. "In canceling the instructions to transform spaces from Islamic periods beneath the Mughrabi Ascent into synagogues for women at the Western Wall, the committee acted with admirable responsibility," said Seidemann. "In doing so, the committee almost certainly prevented a most dangerous inter-religious flare-up."
At the same time, Seidemann noted that there are international figures who have not come to terms with other key components of the plan, such as the design of the bridge and the violation of the status quo at the site that expandsion of the Western Wall plaza would entail. He said that only continued handling of the plan with cooperation and dialogue among all the entities involved would prevent a conflagration and could even turn into a model for resolving conflicts at this sensitive site.
At the time of its decision last fall, the government allocated NIS 14 million for construction of the new bridge, subject to the approval of the district committee. Additionally, it allocated an immediate NIS 3.5 million to the Israel Antiquities Authority for the preservation work.
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