After 30 years of legal and political battles, Israel was set to inaugurate an elevator to improve handicap accessibility at Hebron’s Cave of Machpelah — the Tomb of the Patriarchs — on June 8.
The site is the burial place of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. It 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, said Elimelech Karzen, one of the managers of the tomb.
“We have people who come in wheelchairs, people who can’t walk, pregnant women, old people that want to visit Ma’arat HaMachpelah,” Karzen said, using the Hebrew name for the 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 is divided into Jewish and Muslim areas. A rotation system allows Jews and Muslims to visit each other’s side on certain religious holidays.
Asked about accessibility on the Muslim side, Karzen said the Palestinians rejected Israeli offers to build a second elevator there.
“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,” he 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,” he 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.
Steve Bloomberg, a long-time advocate for handicap accessibility, lauded the elevator’s completion.
“I can go and pray at Machpelah now,” Bloomberg said. He was left paralyzed from the waist down by a Palestinian drive-by shooting in Samaria in August 2001. The terrorist killed his wife, Tehiya, and their unborn child, and paralyzed his 16-year-old daughter Tziporah.
“I went there quite a few times before my injury. It’s a very important, central place for the Jewish and Muslim faiths,” he said. “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. He contacts local councils and other authorities whenever he encounters or hears about problems of accessibility.
He said the need for the elevator in Hebron is obvious.
“According to the numbers, 1.5 million people visit the Cave of Machpelah 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.