Court Orders State to Explain Construction in Jerusalem's Holy Basin

The High Court of Justice last week ordered the state to explain the unauthorized construction and earthworks by government bodies near the Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Arab residents of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan and Peace Now activists had petitioned the court on the matter. The petition calls on the court put an end to area earthworks by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The petition alleges the authority - which is reportedly digging near the Al-Aqsa Mosque with the cooperation of the Elad Association for Resettling Jews in the Old City - has failed to obtain building permits for the works and has not presented a proper building scheme.

High Court Justice Edna Arbel, who reviewed the petition, ordered the authority - along with the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, the city of Jerusalem and building contractors - to explain within five days why the state should not grant the petitioners' request for an injunction on construction.

On Tuesday, the city told the High Court of Justice that because the authority had not received a construction permit, it had ordered the works halted a day before the petition was filed. However, Peace Now told Haaretz that construction in the area was still ongoing.

Attorney Sammy Arshid, who filed the petition for Peace now, wrote in the petition that the Israel Antiquities Authority was using the pretext of archeological diggings to construct a 115,000 square meter structure meant to house an events hall, commercial center, motels and underground parking lot. The city had planned a parking lot for the area.

As alleged proof of this, the petitioners cite the use of massive drills and the laying of 15-meter-deep iron foundations. They note that "archeological digs are usually pursued with caution and fine equipment, so as to eliminate the danger of damaging relics.

The petitioners go on to claim that construction on site was intensive enough to damage neighboring homes, resulting in cracked walls and fear of collapsed foundations. "The damages give rise to concerns that the works are being performed without proper supervision from qualified engineers," the petition states.

Over the past few years, the Israel Antiquities Authority has performed several large-scale and expensive "rescue digs" in the Holy Basin area in the Jerusalem. In some cases, as in the case of the restoration of the Mughrabi Gate, construction is performed without the approval of the appropriate authorities or a valid construction scheme.