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In the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, Palestinian residents of the Old City of Hebron, in the southern occupied West Bank, found themselves fighting another battle that, for them, holds far higher stakes than the spread of Covid-19.

On 13 May, the Israeli military issued an expropriation order allowing construction to begin on an elevator project that would make a portion of the ancient Ibrahimi Mosque wheelchair accessible.

“On the surface, making holy sites accessible to people with disabilities seems like a fine idea,” Aref Jaber, a local Palestinian activist and resident of the Old City, told Middle East Eye. “But in reality, this is just another dubious way for the Israeli government and settlers to steal more of our land and take it for themselves.”

The new elevator project, Jaber said, would swallow up more space of the already restricted Muslim side of the compound.

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The Ibrahimi compound – known to Israelis as the Cave of the Patriarchs – was split into a mosque and synagogue following the 1994 massacre of dozens of Palestinian worshipers at the hands of Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein.

Former Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, who authorised the plan, also instructed the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli military body ruling over the West Bank, “to take all action necessary” to expropriate additional land around the sanctuary for the use of the accessibility project.

“On top of taking more of our land and holy space, this elevator would only serve the Israeli settlers on the other side of the sanctuary,” Jaber said.

“This is not about an elevator,” he continued. “It’s about stealing more land, bringing in more settlers, and kicking out more Palestinians. That’s what it’s always about with Israel.”

A domino effect

When Israel announced plans for the elevator, condemnation from Palestinian leaders and activists was swift.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) denounced it as a crime, with the Ministry of Religious Affairs calling it a “provocative and malicious” project intended to further Israel’s domination over the holy site.

PA Minister of Civilian Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh called the decision a “continuation of the annexation project” in the West Bank and Jerusalem, while the foreign ministry condemned it as an effort to “change Arab and Islamic features and the identity of the Palestinian region, and to create new realities that fall within the framework of a widespread Judaisation process”.

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For Palestinians, one of the main issues with the plan was the fact that the Israeli military was bypassing the Palestinian municipality of Hebron, which – under the 1997 Hebron Agreement between Israel and the PA – has the final say and oversight on such projects.

When the municipality objected to the plan, Israel decided to move forward anyway, placing the project under the control of COGAT.

With Bennett granting full control over the project to COGAT, arming it with the power to seize as much land and resources that it needs for the project, what little say Palestinians did have over the site was gone.

Despite assurances from COGAT that Palestinians would have 60 days to appeal the decision, and that the project “will not change the prayer arrangement nor the status quo” at the site, locals say the changes on the ground began almost immediately after the decision was made.

“Suddenly, they stopped allowing journalists and cameras inside the mosque, and telling us we weren’t allowed to film inside the sanctuary,” Jaber told MEE.

When the PA officially ended the emergency coronavirus lockdown in the West Bank and ordered the reopening of all the mosques at the end of May, Jaber and other residents of the Old City rushed to the doors of the mosque, only to find Israeli soldiers blocking their entry.

… continue

Sorgente: Amid pandemic, Israel expands control over Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque | Middle East Eye

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