High Court hearing of Emek Shaveh petition against Western Wall tunnel excavations

On Thursday, May 17 at 11:30am, the High Court will hear the petition filed by Emek Shaveh via Attorney Itay Mack, demanding a halt to the Western Wall tunnel excavations beneath the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem. According to the Antiquities Law, excavation and development works at holy sites require the approval of a ministerial committee that consists of the Minister of Culture, Minister of Justice and Minister of Religious Affairs. In the last High Court hearing of an Emek Shaveh petition on the religious status of the Western Wall tunnels (HCR 16/9392), the High Court accepted the state’s view that the entire tunnel complex is holy for Jews, and therefore approval by a ministerial committee is required to continue excavations there.

The state recognizes the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif as a holy complex. The Western Wall tunnels are situated adjacent to the complex and some run alongside its retaining walls. The demand to convene a ministerial committee is based on the legislature’s recognition of the need to act with extreme care when excavating holy sites. This is not a formal matter but a principled demand which was made into law in 1987, and represents the need to act with particular sensitivity at holy sites that had come under Israeli jurisdiction when Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967.

In light of this, we claim that in such a sensitive place like the Western Wall Tunnels and the sites adjacent to the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif, it is crucial that the responsible supervising body would be the senior political echelon and not the professional echelon of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Thus, excavation works at the tunnels must be halted until the ministerial committee grants its approval.

The Western Wall tunnels run from the Western Wall Plaza, through the Muslim Quarter up until the Via Dolorosa. The spaces called tunnels have long been much more than just tunnels. They are hundreds of meters which have been excavated over many years and serve as underground synagogues, museums, and tourist attractions. The location of the excavations and the fact that the development works are carried out on behalf of private foundations  and not governmental bodies, and are concealed from the public eye, increases the need for the direct involvement of the senior political echelon in decision-making processes in an area that is holy to hundreds of millions of believers from different faiths. Past experience has revealed the dangers inherent in careless conduct there.