The Israeli occupation municipality in Jerusalem approved a plan to expand the “mixed gender area” on the occupied side of the Al-Buraq Wall (Western wall), under pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The legal advisor to the Israeli municipality initially opposed the expansion, but withdrew his opposition last week after pressure from Netanyahu’s office, which said authorities can expand buildings to help people with special needs without first obtaining building approvals.
The plan includes the expansion of the mixed area and the road leading to it, and the installation of transit supplies for people with special needs, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
This comes after Netanyahu promised to expand the mixed gender space to compensate non-Orthodox Jewish groups for the government’s cancellation following Orthodox pressure of a broader deal to give them greater rights at the Wall.
The mixed square in the Al-Buraq Wall, known as Ezrat Israel, was established in an effort by the Israeli government to separate Orthodox worshipers who forbid mixing of women with men during prayer and reformers, who allow men and women to worship together.
Archaeologists have appealed to the High Court of Justice, claiming the restoration works at the archaeological site are illegal and would cause permanent damage.
The Attorney General’s office first objected on the grounds that the plan was extensive and sensitive, and couldn’t be slipped through using the pretext of making the site accessible for handicapped people. But the legal advisor, under pressure from the prime minister’s office, approved the plan.
Some prominent Israelis have criticised the fast-tracked plan. Dr. Yizhar Hess, the head of Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) Movement, welcomed the decision to expand the site but expressed doubts over the way it was approved. “This is far from what was agreed upon in the Western Wall deal and I must say I would be more content if this was done more formally,” he said. “This special permission gives us a bit of a feeling of thieves in the night.”
Israel Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel said the Western Wall should be under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, which the prime minister’s office has bypassed. “The argument about who has the authority in the Western wall, and it’s not the prime minister’s office, it’s the Chief Rabbinate,” he said.
“Can the prime minister bypass the defence minister in things under his purview? The prime minister needs to follow the rules.”