‘It Means I Can Go and Pray’: Israel to Inaugurate Elevator at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs

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Photo by Tzipi Shlissel/TPS on 1 June, 2023
By Pesach Benson • 1 June, 2023

Jerusalem, 1 June, 2023 (TPS) — After 30 years of legal and political battles, Israel will inaugurate an elevator to improve handicap accessibility at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs on June 8. Invitations were sent by the Ministry of Defense’s Civil Administration on Wednesday.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is the burial place of the Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives, and is one of Israel’s most visited tourist sites.

The $1.6 million project includes a sloped path linking the parking area to the tomb, an elevator and an enclosed footbridge connecting the elevator to the entrance of the holy site.

Until now, visitors had to go up “around 30 steps” between the street and the entrance to the Tomb. After entering the building, visitors had to climb another 60 steps to reach the prayer area, Elimelech Karzen, one of the managers of the tomb, told the Tazpit Press Service.

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“We have people who come in wheelchairs, people who can’t walk, pregnant women, old people that want to visit Ma’arat HaMachpeila,” Karzen said, using the Hebrew name for the holy site.

“Even regular people who are tired. They don’t want to climb 60 or 100 stairs. People need elevators. It’s 2023. Each time to go up and down, it’s very difficult,” he said.

Karzen noted that before the Coronavirus pandemic, the holy site had 1.5 million visitors a year. Visitors are returning in increasing numbers, making the need for the elevator more acute.

Efforts to build the elevator were mired in legal petitions filed by Palestinians, who claimed that the elevator damaged the site’s archaeological and architectural significance, and that Israel illegally expropriated land for the initiative. A High Court of Justice ruling in November 2021 cleared away the last legal hurdles.

For security reasons, the tomb was divided into Jewish and Muslim areas. A rotation system allows Jews and Muslims to occasionally visit each other’s side.

Asked about accessibility on the Muslim side, Karzen told TPS that the Palestinians rejected Israeli offers to build a second elevator on the Muslim side.

“For 30 years, we’ve been trying to get this and the Muslims didn’t agree, even when we offered to build one on their side,” Karzen said. He added that there are fewer steps on the Muslim side.

Karzen rejected criticism that the elevator damaged the tomb’s character, stressing that the elevator is outside the building.

“We didn’t touch anything old,” Karzen said. “They only took a few blocks off a wall that was built by the Jordanians in the 1950s or 60s. But we were careful not to touch anything archaeologically important.”

As for the elevator and footbridge’s aesthetics, Karzen acknowledged, “The shape might not be the nicest thing in the world, but it’s okay because so many people will now be able to come. That’s a price we can pay.”

The current structure around the tomb was built 2,000 years ago by King Herod the Great. Byzantine and Crusader conquerors turned it into a church. During the Mamluke conquest, the site was converted into a mosque and Jews were banned from going past the seventh step of a staircase outside the building.

‘It Means I Can Go and Pray’

Steve Bloomberg, a long-time advocate for handicap accessibility lauded the elevator’s completion.

“I can go and pray at Machpeila now,” Bloomberg told TPS. He was left paralyzed from the waist down in a Palestinian drive-by terror shooting in August 2001 in Samaria. The attack killed his wife and also paralyzed his daughter.

“I went there quite a few times before my injury. Its a very important, central place for the Jewish and Muslim faiths,” he told TPS. “There are 89 steps there, it’s impossible to visit in a wheelchair. You need four people to carry you up the steps. That’s not very safe, it’s not very comfortable and not very practical.”

Bloomberg, an optical engineer, is also a one-man activist, who contacts local councils and other authorities whenever he encounters or hears about problems of accessibility.

He insists the need for the elevator in Hebron is obvious.

“According to the numbers, 1.5 million people visit the Cave of Machpeila every year. If you think about it, what percentage of them are in wheelchairs or are old and just can’t get up the steps? It’s a fight for people who are disabled and can’t get up so many steps, people with baby carriages and anybody like that,” Bloomberg said.

He noted that accessibility problems extend beyond  ancient holy sites to more modern buildings.

“I recently went to a hall for a ceremony for injured terror victims and injured soldiers. There were no accessible toilets. It was unbelievable,” he said.

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