Access to Israel’s Holy Sites
The Western Wall in Jerusalem
Israel contains many significant holy sites — the Western Wall, the Cave of the Patriarchs (where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeccah, Jacob and Leah are believed to be buried), Rachel’s Tomb, the Temple Mount, among others. Access to these sites has been the source of much controversy between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
Israel has always been committed to providing equal access for people of all faiths to religious sites under its jurisdiction. This has been apparent since the founding of the Jewish state: From 1948 to the 1967 Six Day War, Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan. While Israel safeguarded religious sites within Jerusalem and kept access to them open, Jordan desecrated many Jewish holy sites and severely restricted Christians’ and Jews’ access to these locations. Jews were unable to access the Western Wall, were not allowed past the seventh step leading up to the Cave of the Patriarchs, and were no longer allowed to pray at Rachel’s Tomb.
On the heels of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Jerusalem was reunited under Israeli control, Israeli leaders adopted the Protection of Holy Places Law, which guarantees that “The Holy Places shall be protected from desecration and any other violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings with regard to those places.”
The law established harsh punishment for violators: a seven-year prison term for those who desecrate holy places and five years for those who violate others’ freedom of access to the sites. Time and again, Israeli authorities have shown the commitment to uphold this law. More recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to this law, declaring, “The state of Israel in contrast to its neighbors will continue to preserve freedom of religion at these sites and preserve them for future generations.”
In contrast, Arab leaders and governments have often tightly restricted access to holy sites under their control, and looked the other way while Muslim mobs desecrated both Jewish and Christian holy sites. In 2000, after the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) withdrew protection from Joseph’s Tomb, located in Samaria — the disputed West Bank — Palestinian mobs ransacked the structure, destroying everything within it.
After the First Intifada, Bethlehem was placed under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.), while Israel retained control of Rachel’s Tomb, located within this historic city. After constant Arab attacks, in 1996 Israel was forced to build a fortress around the tomb that includes two guard towers, three-foot-thick concrete walls, and barbed wire. Arab rioters and gunmen were a constant threat during this construction project.
Rabbi Eckstein praying at the
Western Wall in Jerusalem
The P.A.’s Ministry of Waqf and Islamic Affairs, which currently controls the Temple Mount, has prohibited all non-Muslims from entering the sanctuary, the exact location where the Jewish Temple once stood. Palestinians have thrown stones from the Temple Mount at Jews praying at the Western Wall below on several occasions.
The U.S. State Department’s 2002 International Religious Freedom Report finds that the P.A. has no law protecting religious freedoms. And public statements from Palestinian religious and political leaders show no respect for Israeli holy sites and no desire to offer the same access that Israel offers at holy sites within her borders. “The Western Wall is just a fence belonging to a Muslim holy site,” said Sheikh Ikrama Sabri, then the official P.A. Mufti, when he demanded that Israel give up all rights over the Temple Mount. And in 2003, P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas declared that a Palestinian state would not tolerate any permanent Jewish presence at the Western Wall, the most sacred site in all Judaism.
In its commitment to protecting religious freedoms, including access to holy sites for people of all faiths, Israel stands apart from its neighbors. Further, it is acting in accordance with the principles on which it was founded: democracy, pluralism, tolerance, and freedom for all.