The security cabinet yesterday decided to include Rachel's Tomb inside the Jerusalem "security envelope," effectively ordering the de facto annexation of the holy site.
Shas and the National Religious Party had pushed hard for including the tomb, with the backing of Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who lobbied strenuously behind the scenes for the move.
The Palestinian Legislative Council yesterday condemned the government's decision, saying it was a violation of international agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that were backed by the U.S. and other countries.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer's proposal to build a moving walkway stretching the 500 meters between Jerusalem's municipal border and Rachel's Tomb, which would have sidestepped the move toward annexation.
Sharon also ordered the army to step up the pace of devising a security envelope in the northern part of the city that would allow the Atarot airport to be reopened. Both Atarot and Rachel's Tomb have come under Palestinian fire during the two years of the intifada.
Until now, the tomb has been in Area C, meaning under full Israeli control, but it was originally slated in the Oslo Accords for inclusion in Area A, i.e. territory under full Palestinian control. Under pressure from rabbinical and religious political circles in 1994, then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and his successor Shimon Peres decided to extend Area C to include the tomb, which is frequented by tens of thousands of Jews every year.
Ben-Eliezer brought a proposal to the meeting yesterday that would have built a moving walkway above the Palestinian residential neighborhood that lies between the tomb and the Jerusalem municipal lines. But Sharon scotched it immediately, saying that entrance to the tomb area had to be free for all, "even for an elderly woman who has waited for years to reach the tomb and is carrying bags."
When Labor's Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh raised the question of what would happen to the Gaza and Bethlehem First understandings of the past few weeks that have kept Bethlehem quiet, Housing Minister Natan Sharansky snapped at him, "That plan is a figment of your imaginations."
Interior Minister Eli Yishai reminded the ministers in attendance that the Rosh Hashanah haftorah reading included a reference to Rachel weeping for her children - and the passage ends with the phrase that the "children shall return." Shas ministers plan to visit the site today and then travel further south to Hebron to go to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
The plan chosen yesterday creates a trapezoid-shaped area around the tomb, connected to Jerusalem, and will require paving a new road to Bethlehem, to bypass the tomb. The new route is to be worked out by the army and the Jerusalem municipality.
Immediately after the 1967 Six-Day War, prime minister Levi Eshkol ordered the tomb to be annexed to Jerusalem, but the instructions were never carried out because of objections by defense minister Moshe Dayan.
During late 2000 and often during 2001 and early 2002, there were shooting incidents near the tomb, which was closed for much of that time. The site was reopened to Israeli and foreign visitors a few months ago.