Western Wall Development 'Illegal', Opponents Claim

The controversial Strauss House is a 900-square-meter building planned for the northern area of the plaza in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City.

A controversial construction project for the Western Wall Plaza was approved illegally, opponents claim. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Waqf Muslim religious trust and Jewish Quarter residents, together with others who oppose the plan, say the state failed to obtain approval from the Israel National Commission for UNESCO, as required, before authorizing the plans.

The Old City of Jerusalem was placed on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites in the 1980s. As such, any project requiring the approval of state planning authorities must be approved by the minister of education, who oversees Israel's UNESCO organization.

Rendering of planned Strauss House

The project in question is the Strauss House, a 900-square-meter building planned for the northern area of the plaza in front of the Western Wall. It is to house a police station, public toilets and the offices of both the rabbi of the Western Wall and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

The district planning and building committee approved the construction plan, but only on condition that the education minister also approve them.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar did give his approval, just three weeks after he was appointed to the post. entered office. "In line with article 99 of the law on planning and construction ... and following examination of the plan in question, I have no objection to this plan," he wrote to the planning committee in April 2009.

Article 99, however, obligates the education minister to consult the experts sitting on the UNESCO commission before issuing an approval.

The opponents of the project argue that the lapse constitutes a substantive flaw in the approval process. They submitted to the National Planning and Building Council a request to withdraw approval of the plan and hold a hearing on the project.

The request to suspend the project was rejected, but on Sunday the council's appeals committee held a session to hear the opponent's views.

The Interior Ministry said in a response that the Strauss House project "involves a request to add to an existing structure."

The district planning and building committee's attorney the wrote in a response to the appeal against the project that Sa'ar had sent his letter of approval to the chairman of the Israel World Heritage committee, Prof. Michael Turner, and that had Turner wanted to object to the project he would have done so.