J'lem Considers Tunnel Entry to Western Wall Plaza

New entryway would require excavation; women worry about their rights at Judaism's holiest site.

The Jerusalem Planning and Building Committee will meet today to discuss a master plan for expanding the Western Wall Plaza.

The program, still in its initial phase of planning, has already provoked an outcry among opponents, including Islamic groups, women's rights groups and denizens of the Old City's Jewish Quarter.

Western Wall plans - Haaretz - Oct. 4, 2010

The plan - prepared by the Western Wall Foundation in conjunction with the Jerusalem municipality and Jerusalem Development Authority - includes the construction of a new underground passageway that would become the main entryway to the plaza.

The Western Wall receives 8 million visitors a year, and by 2025, that number is expected to nearly double.

Excavating the area is complicated by the fact that the plaza was never initially planned. Its appearance today is the result of the hasty demolition of the Moroccan Quarter, the neighborhood that once existed adjacent to the wall, in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War.

The cornerstone of the plan, which has been prepared by the architect Gavriel Kertesz, is to replace the current entryway to the plaza, via the Dung Gate, in favor of a wide underground corridor.

The tunnel will feature a large entry terminal where security personnel will examine visitors. Once inside, visitors will climb stairs or a ramp, or take an elevator, to the plaza itself.

Archaeological finds will line the corridor's walls, giving visitors a sense of the area's thousands of years of history.

Muslim outcry expected

As in any underground excavation near the Temple Mount, the dig raises diplomatic issues and the specter of violence on the part of Islamic groups concerned over the fate of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

"This whole area is a powder keg," said Ezri Levi, coordinator of the project and a former head of the Jerusalem Development Authority. "There will always be someone who will complain."

Kais Nasser, the attorney representing a number of Islamic groups, said the move contravenes court rulings on the Western Wall. The Islamic groups, Jordanian officials and UNESCO were not consulted during planning, he said, violating the status quo at the site. "The program is not in line with the sensitivity and importance of this site," Nasser said.

Lack of space for women

Opposition to the plan has also been voiced by women's rights groups in Jerusalem, who claim it will essentially foil efforts to enlarge the women's section of the plaza, which today accounts for just a third of the entire prayer section.

According to Levi, a potential solution to that problem is a movable divider that can be adjusted in accordance with the amount of male and female visitors to the site.

Still, city council member Rachel Azaria said enlarging the women's section must be a foremost priority.

"The issue is that women cannot pray in a minyan [prayer quorum] at the Western Wall, but only individually," she said. "Individual prayer is by nature closer to the Western Wall, and therefore women need more space there than men do."