Bennett Approves Changes at Cave of Patriarchs in Violation of Oslo Accords

Shunning the authority of the local municipality over the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Bennett approves structural changes to make the compound handicap accessible

Hagar Shezaf
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A view of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron, on May 1, 2020.
A view of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron, on May 1, 2020.Credit: AFP
Hagar Shezaf

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett approved structural changes to make the Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron accessible to the disabled on Sunday, without the agreement of the city hall. The move is in contradiction with the Oslo Accords, which state that the planning authority for the holy site belongs to the Hebron municipality, not to Israel’s minister of defense.

The plan to make the site accessible to the disabled includes an elevator, a path to access the entrance from the parking area and a bridge connecting the elevator to the entrance of the compound. The local municipality and the Islamic Waqf, the Muslim religious trust, are expected to object to the expropriation of land necessary to make the changes.

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The cost of the project is about 5 million shekels ($1.4 million), which will be funded by Israel’s tourism, religious affairs, heritage and defense ministries. The statement from  Bennett’s office said the approval was given after the justice ministry okayed the project a few weeks ago, and after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz green-lighted it at the end of April.

At a session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in February, the head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Ghassan Alian, said the order of eminent domain for the area needed for the elevator had been ready for a year.

Alian said at the time that after the Justice Ministry provided a legal opinion allowing the construction of the stairs, it was up to the political leadership – in this case Bennett – to approve the plans in order to override the planning authority of the Hebron municipality.

Objections to the plan can be filed within 60 days of its approval. After that, the plan will have to be approved by the Civil Administration’s higher planning council. Alian told the Knesset committee that according to the Civil Administration’s timetable, the project will take about a year to carry out, assuming legal proceedings do not cause a delay.

Samar Shehadeh, an attorney who represents the Hebron municipality and the Waqf, told Haaretz that his clients intend to object to the expropriation of the land and the planning process. “We think the step is prima facie illegal according to international law, Jordanian law and Israeli civil law,” he said.“

There is no way in which the state can take possession and ownership of the compound from the Jordanian Waqf or the planning authority from the municipality to advance steps intended to serve the settler population at the expense of the Palestinians,” he added.

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