After years of failed efforts to improve access to Me’aras Hamachpelah for disabled visitors, a legal solution is now available that will allow Israel to move ahead with the work without the cooperation of the Muslim Waqf, which has refused to allow the improvements until now.
State Attorney Avichai Mandelblit has given the state the go-ahead to expropriate the site from the control of the Waqf, putting Israeli solely in charge of the Me’aras Mamachpelah.
The Defense Ministry, as the controlling entity in Yehuda and Shomron, can now take sole control of the site. The decision on whether to do so or not is now in the hands of Defense Minister Naftali Bennett. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in February gave final approval for the project.
Plans to install an elevator, wheelchair ramps, and facilities to accommodate the elderly and disabled have been on the table for years, but all efforts to get the Waqf to cooperate have been for naught.
Israel in 1997 recognized Waqf authority on Me’aras Hamachpelah. Since then, the military government has sought Waqf agreement on any changes at the site. The plan is likely to entail the takeover of several lots that are currently controlled by the Chevron municipality. In July, the IDF Coordinator for relations with the Palestinian Authority demanded that the Chevron municipality give its permission to carry out the work; if it refused to, the Coordinator warned, Israel would move forward with the work unilaterally.
In a letter to Bennett, Likud MK Keti Sheetrit said that she “has been working on this issue for over a year, and this week I was informed that we have overcome the legal hurdle and that the Justice Ministry has agreed to allow the expropriation of Me’aras Hamachpelah for the purposes of installing an elevator. I implore you as defense minister to sign the letter to execute that change. Do not delay! This is first and foremost a humanitarian act. We must improve access for members of all religions in order to ensure freedom of religion. We must give all Jews the opportunity to connect to his tradition. We must declare that we as Jews have been in Chevron in the past, and will remain there forever.”
Speaking in February, Bennett said that from his perspective, the project had a green light. “This plan has been postponed for many years. I expect the prime minister and foreign minister to approve this as well. We are ending the long-standing discrimination, and now all people, disabled or not, will be able to visit the site,” he said.