Israel's Shelved Plan to Demolish Muslims' Homes and Extend the Western Wall Plaza

Five years after the 1967 war, the authorities realized the Wall was longer than they thought. New research details the decision not to extend the central plaza for Jewish worshippers.

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The Little Western Wall, August 2016.
The Little Western Wall, August 2016.Credit: Olivieh Fitoussi
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

In February 1972 the country was in shock. Workers who were sent to reinforce a dilapidated structure in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter drilled four large holes in the building’s eastern wall. It turned out the wall was nothing less than part of the Western Wall in an area known today as the Little Western Wall, or the Little Kotel, north of today’s central plaza.

The rabbi of the site, Meir Yehuda Getz, was horrified by the drilling, comparing it to drilling through a Torah scroll. Stone chips were collected and placed in glass jars in the plaza area. The next day’s issue of the daily Maariv carried the headline: “Great excitement in Jerusalem over defilement of the Wall.” Notices posted in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods called for “vigorous protest,” and Prime Minister Golda Meir appointed a committee to investigate.

This incident revealed to Israelis, five years after the Six-Day War, that other sections of the Western Wall were hidden among the houses of the Muslim Quarter. The incident also brought to light a dramatic plan that had only been known to a handful of bureaucrats and decision-makers: to build more plazas along the Wall by demolishing houses abutting it in the Muslim Quarter.

New research by Nadav Shragai, a journalist and senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, reveals the story of the Little Kotel, exposing plans to expand the Wall’s plaza northwards.

Menachem Begin at the Little Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, 1972. Credit: Western Wall Heritage Foundation in the book "The Disappearing Wall"

The Temple Mount’s Western Wall is 488 meters (1,601 feet) long. The plaza currently in use is only 57 meters long. South of it lies the Davidson Archaeological Park, which takes up 81 meters of the Wall this is where a portion will be allocated for prayer by non-Orthodox Jews.

Most of the Wall, 350 meters, is hidden from view, passing along houses in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. Dozens of houses lean on it, and in some cases the Wall serves as a house’s wall. An exception is the small, concealed Little Kotel plaza, which lies among these houses and 16.4 meters of the Wall.

In his Hebrew-language book “The Secret of the Disappearing Wall,” Shragai investigated the history of this little clearing. It’s no less holy than the bigger open plaza, and according to some experts it’s even more sacred because it lies closer to the destroyed Temple’s inner sanctuary (the Holy of Holies).

Despite this fact and the efforts of various groups and individuals to turn the area into an official prayer site, the Little Kotel remains a stepbrother, as Shragai calls it, of the more famous site. You can pray at the Little Western Wall, but it’s not officially declared a holy site.

Ben-Gurion and Teddy Kollek

The day after the Temple Mount and the Western Wall were captured in June 1967, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion visited the site. The elderly leader noticed a lean-to bathroom along the Wall and asked parks authority chief Yaakov Yanai how such a thing was permitted. Yanai tried to explain that the site had only been taken over the previous day.

“Still, this is intolerable,” Ben-Gurion said. The bathroom was part of the Mughrabi neighborhood that stood where today’s plaza lies. Two days later, under pressure from Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek and district commander Shlomo Lahat, the bathroom was demolished along with the neighborhood’s 108 houses. This is how the central plaza was created.

But the Chief Rabbinate, the Religious Affairs Ministry and the political right weren’t satisfied. They sought to expose further sections of the Wall north of the Mughrabi neighborhood. Voices called for further demolitions of houses in the area.

“These first days were conducive for such action,” wrote Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim in a memo for a ministerial committee dealing with holy sites. “The more time passed the more difficult this became.”

Indeed, the momentum that led to the neighborhood’s demolition was blocked, though not everybody realized it. As Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman wrote, “I’m sure this issue will be resolved soon, and then the public will fill the whole area, from corner to corner, with thousands praying there on a permanent basis.”

Mughrabi Quarter in Jerusalem, 1917Credit: New York Times Photo Archive

The Religious Affairs Ministry sought to advance the matter, commissioning a survey that examined the entire length of the Wall and criticized the existence of any bathrooms or sewage tanks in the area. The ministry drew up a map that specified which houses would be demolished.

“The Wall will be revealed in all its glory,” one of the documents reads. “Exposing the entire length of the Wall will emphasize to the world our rights to the Temple Mount itself, something that is not currently obvious,” says one of the documents. This document then compares the exposure of the Wall to what the British authorities did to expose the Old City walls.

These plans circulated in government offices, and Prof. Avraham Biran, the head of what is now known as the Antiquities Authority, tried to block them. He and his staff prepared documents that stressed the importance of preserving buildings lying along the Wall.

The debates continued quietly until the 1972 drilling incident, which led to the question of whether to preserve or demolish the house, and whether to keep the promise to the Shihabi family to let them keep living there.

A decade before he became prime minister, right-wing leader Menachem Begin was the main proponent of demolition. “The question is whether the Jewish people around the world will be able to see the entire Wall or not,” he said at a meeting of the Knesset Interior Committee.

“We have one Wall, and it should be exposed in its entirety. For many generations our enemies have tried to destroy and annihilate us and we couldn’t do a thing to oppose them. Now that we’re in Jerusalem, why should we inflict wounds on ourselves?”

Opposing him was Mayor Kollek, who was against demolishing houses there. “There are houses that are 100 and even 800 years old there,” he reminded Begin, who answered: “We don’t want to disturb anyone else’s holy sites but we have our own and we must protect them, even if this means evacuating a few Arab houses.” Begin added that the tenants would be compensated with alternate housing.

The spirit of compromise

As another opponent of demolitions, Labor MK Arie Eliav, put it, “I and others like me never dreamed that we’d be granted what we now have with the Western Wall. At most we thought we’d get it back as it was in 1948 and we never thought of large plazas next to it. After all, one day we’ll want to sit and negotiate, to compromise, to make and receive promises.”

In the end, the tenants were allowed to return and no further demolitions took place.

“It was already in an operational mode,” Shragai told Haaretz in describing the demolition plans. “You don’t send out people to survey the area and prepare maps and bring it to the Defense Ministry if you’re not serious about carrying it out. But the state ultimately drew a boundary between the Jewish Quarter and the larger exposed Wall area on one side and the Muslim Quarter and the Little Kotel.”

To this day, this boundary has implications for government policies on the Muslim Quarter. In the Jewish Quarter thousands of Arab residents were evicted for reconstruction and repopulation, but the Muslim Quarter, where Jews had also lived until the 1929 riots, was treated differently.

Nadav Shragai, author of “The Secret of the Disappearing Wall,” August 2016. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

There the government has left resettlement initiatives in the hands of nonprofit settler groups, mainly Ateret Cohanim. Over the years the group has bought many houses in the area and moved 1,300 Jews into the Muslim Quarter. Still, Ateret Cohanim has not managed to purchase houses along the Wall’s northern sections.

In the meantime, a tense status quo has been established at the Little Kotel. People are allowed to pray there but not mark it as an official prayer site with benches, stands and a shelf for holy books. Every Friday the police set up barriers so that worshippers there don’t block access to the homes of local Palestinians. Every tiny issue like garbage removal or scaffolding becomes an issue discussed at the highest levels.

After many years, scaffolding that blocked the view of part of the Wall has been removed, but there are still large metal sheets behind which garbage has accumulated. According to the police, removal of these sheets may stir opposition from the Jordanian government and the Waqf, the legal custodian of Muslim holy sites.

The fragility of this status quo was seen in an incident a decade ago. On Rosh Hashanah a prayer service took place there and a young ultra-Orthodox man blew the shofar.

Policemen arrested him and confiscated the ram’s horn. They were worried that the sounds would be heard by Muslim worshippers on the Temple Mount that year the Jewish New Year fell during the month of Ramadan.

Israeli sovereignty and the existence of the Western Wall Plaza don’t deter Shragai from comparing this incident to one in 1930. On that occasion, Rabbi Moshe Segal was arrested by the British authorities for blowing a shofar.

“My dream for this place has been fulfilled. I wanted people to know about this place, that there was another Wall behind the Muslim Quarter,” Shragai says.

“I want people to come and visit it, to pray there, to remove the garbage and provide more comfortable prayer conditions while maintaining an access route for the families who live there. You didn’t ask whether I favor demolishing more houses in order to expose more of the Wall. Let there be no mistake, I don’t.”