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Israel: Knocking down walls to put up a parking lot

Analysis: In Jerusalem's old city, plans to build a parking lot might stoke tensions.

Old City of Jerusalem, Israel Palestine conflict
Palestinian girls walk past a wall painting of the Palestinian national flag in Jerusalem's Old City. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Intifada fans can breathe a little more easily.

Just when it seemed as though no amount of building in Israel’s settlements and harsh statements at the United Nations by the country’s foreign minister could truly provoke new violence between Israelis and Palestinians, the Jerusalem municipality came up with something guaranteed to steam up some hotheads.

The city’s planning committee is considering a proposal to build an underground parking lot for the Old City by breaching the 16th-century walls of Suleiman the Magnificent and digging into the rock beneath the ancient Jewish Quarter.

“This is illegal,” said Ghassan Khatib, director of the Palestinian Authority’s government media center in Ramallah. “These illegal changes would provoke the Palestinians and many others, Muslims and Christians. This will aggravate the tension between Israelis and Palestinians and have a negative effect on current international efforts to renew the political process.”

Over the years, Palestinians and Islamists have called for violence to protect, as they put it, the Old City from alleged Israeli plots to undermine it and bring the Aqsa Mosque, considered the third holiest shrine in Islam, tumbling down. Such conspiracies always seemed somewhat far-fetched, though nonetheless effective for all that.

This time, Jerusalem’s city government seems set on mirroring some aspects of the most vivid Palestinian paranoia.

There are seven gates in the walls constructed around Jerusalem (it was all the city there was when they were built, though now it’s called the Old City) by Turkish Sultan Suleiman in 1538. (Eleven, if you count four that were long ago sealed up.) In 1898, the fickle Ottoman government smashed a massive breach in the wall beside the Jaffa Gate so that Kaiser Wilhelm II could be driven through without having to leave his carriage.

That’s usually thought of as an outrage by most tourists and anyone else who treasures great works of civilization. The third-of-a-square mile that is Jerusalem’s Old City is, after all, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

But Jerusalem’s municipality is now considering a plan for 600 new parking spaces in a lot to be built under the Jewish Quarter. (The other quarters are the Muslim, Christian and Armenian.) The aim is to provide space for visitors to the Western Wall plaza, the open area where Jews pray at the foot of the retaining wall of Herod’s 2,000-year-old temple. (The Romans destroyed the rest of the Temple in the year 70.)

Presently Jews coming to pray at the Kotel, as Israelis call it, must vie for parking in a relatively small lot on the edge of the Jewish Quarter or take a bus.

The plan, which hasn’t yet been approved by the city committee, would create a new gate in Suleiman’s wall, between the Zion Gate on the mount of the same name and the Dung Gate, which is the main entry for visitors to the Western Wall.

The gate would provide access to a tunnel through the rock of Mount Zion. At the end of the tunnel, drivers would find a four-story parking lot.