Israel: Knocking down walls to put up a parking lot

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.

The city’s plan would include another element that might raise the ire of Palestinian leaders. City officials intend to close the existing surface parking lot. They’ll use the space to build new housing for the largely ultra-Orthodox Israelis who inhabit the Jewish Quarter.

“With Jerusalem, you always have the problem of balancing conservation and development,” said Ruth Lapidoth, an emeritus professor of international law at Hebrew University who has written extensively on Jerusalem. “There has already been a lot of building in the Jewish Quarter anyway, but it seems the breaching of the actual walls would have to be considered very seriously.”

When I first came to Jerusalem in the summer of 1996, a city development association opened an exit to a tunnel in the Muslim Quarter. It was intended to allow tourists to pass along the wall of Herod’s Temple underneath the quarter’s houses.

Palestinian leaders used the opportunity to spark fears that Israel was undermining the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa Mosque. Fighting resulted throughout the West Bank, leaving 96 Palestinians and 16 Israeli soldiers dead.

Even if six years of intifada in the last decade have reduced the capacity of either side to get up the will for such violence, the Old City of Jerusalem remains — to use diplomatic speech — sensitive.

“This plan is provocative,” said the Palestinian Authority’s Khatib, “and it would be sure to cause protests. Nobody can say how far those protests might go.”

Kaiser Wilhelm’s breach wasn’t the last time the configuration of the Old City gates was altered; the Dung Gate was expanded during the post-war Jordanian rule. But the last entirely new gate to be cut through the wall was, obviously, the New Gate, which was cut in 1887 to provide better access to the Christian Quarter.

An additional thorny question might be what the gate would be called, as the Old City’s gates have names, which are often different in Hebrew, Arabic and English. For the prospective gate, Parking Lot Gate lacks the necessary historic ring. One wonders also would the name of the 123-year-old New Gate have to be changed.