Israeli projects in Jerusalem: Holy Land or Disneyland?

Summary: a proposed cable-car line to the Old City is facing multiple objections but may still get approval. The opening of tunnels under the Old City and the construction of a second tram line are also controversial.

There have been further hints that the long-awaited US plan for a deal on Palestine may shortly emerge. A heavyweight group of retired European statesmen has published an open letter calling on Europe to “promote a plan that respects the basic principles of international law”; while it is preferable for Europe to work in tandem with the US “in situations in which our vital interests and fundamental values are at stake, Europe must pursue its own course of action.”

We are again grateful to Greg Shapland for the posting below. He is a writer on politics, security and resources in the MENA region. He was Head of Research Analysts in the FCO from 2010-13 and is now an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.

In late January, Israel’s National Infrastructure Committee gave provisional approval to a proposal to build a cable-car line linking West Jerusalem with the Old City but gave opponents 60 days in which to express reservations. Those reservations have now been submitted and the Committee will meet in a few weeks’ time to consider whether or not to give the project final approval.

The cable-car line would run from Abu Tor in West Jerusalem to the Dung Gate entrance to the Old City in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem. The stated aim of the project, which has been put forward by the Jerusalem Development Authority and Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, is to bring tourists and pilgrims more rapidly and conveniently to the Old City, avoiding lengthy delays in traffic. (Most visitors currently arrive by coach.) According to the proposers, the cable-car line will be able to convey 3,000 passengers per hour.

The proposal is opposed by a disparate group of organisations which rarely make common cause. Some of the objections are on aesthetic grounds. Moshe Safdie, a world-famous Israeli architect, has said that the project would damage the skyline of the Old City. Another Israeli architect has criticised the decision to bring the proposal to the National Infrastructure Committee, where it will be subject to less rigorous public scrutiny than would have been the case had it gone to another planning body. Emek Shaveh, an archaeological NGO, also opposes the project.

In October 2018, the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz published a petition signed by “dozens” of writers, artists and archaeologists in which the signatories declared that the project “would completely alter the skyline, the scenery and the character of the historic and holy space around the Old City.”

More recently, the Israel Association of Architects and Urban Planners has expressed its reservations in a document that states: “The proposed plan constitutes a serious blow to Jerusalem’s historic landscape in its most important and sensitive areas.”

Other objections relate to the impact on businesses. Merchants in the Old City have complained that visitors who arrive at the Western Wall via the cable car will not pass through the Muslim Quarter. Those trading in that part of Jerusalem will therefore, so the argument goes, suffer a loss of business.

A third set of objections concern what some see as the project’s attempt to erase the Green Line dividing East Jerusalem (occupied territory, under international law) from the West.  Associated objections relate to the promotion of the aims of settler organisations. (Cable-cars arriving at the Old City would terminate at the Kedem Centre, a facility run by the Elad Foundation, a settler organisation.) In this respect, the cable-car line would fulfil the same function as the Jerusalem tram (“light rail”) line, which links West Jerusalem with settlements in the East. The Palestinian Authority has decried what it called “a settlement and Judaization project” and has called on UNESCO to involve itself in efforts to halt the project (Israel withdrew from UNESCO on 1 January this year, citing what it saw as the organisation’s anti-Israel bias. The US did so at the same time.)

The National Infrastructure Committee might not be persuaded by these various expressions of opposition. It is certainly unlikely to pay any heed to arguments relating to the erasing of the Green Line, given that Jerusalem is – in the official Israeli view – an integral part of Israel.

The Committee has also to consider religious opposition to the project. While Jewish groups and parties supportive of the settler movement appear to want the scheme to go ahead, the Karaite sect is outraged by it. (The Karaites, an ancient sect, differ from most Jews in not accepting the authority of the Oral Law as codified in the Talmud.) The source of the Karaites’ outrage was the discovery that the cable-cars would pass over their cemetery in the Hinnom Valley, below the walls of the Old City – and that the plans included provision for a roof over the cemetery, which they saw as tantamount to desecration. (The roof would be needed to protect members of the kohanim, the Jewish priestly class, from the ritual impurity which they would incur were they to “enter” the cemetery by passing directly above it.)

However, the Karaites are not a large sect, numbering only some 40,000 people. Moreover, they are not politically well represented. The National Infrastructure Committee could well disregard their objections to the cable-car line.

Other infrastructure projects in Jerusalem under consideration at the moment are also controversial, although less high-profile than the cable-car line. One involves the opening of several historic tunnels under the Old City, for the use of tourists. The work would involve dismantling part of the wall of a building dating to the early Islamic period. The Palestinian Authority has condemned what it termed Israel’s “attacks” on Jerusalem’s history.

There are also plans to construct a second tram line that, like the first, would link West and East Jerusalem, including Mt Scopus. The Palestinian ambassador to Athens has urged Greek companies that might be considering bidding for work on the line to think again. The workers’ council of the Spanish company CAF has voted against participation in the project, citing the possibility that Palestinian land might be confiscated, in violation of international law. The company itself has not yet decided whether to bid.

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