A proposed cable car project through occupied East Jerusalem has received new impetus from the rise of the Israeli far right and Washington’s decision to move its embassy to the city. But if completed, critics say the long-running proposal would contribute to erasing the visibility of Palestinians in the city they would eventually like to make their capital.
Planning for the $55 million (Dh202m) tourism project continues despite unifying archaeologists, architects, Palestinians, and a tiny community of Jews against it; a sign of Israel’s growing confidence in making unilateral moves in occupied parts of Jerusalem.
Critics say the cable car will help hide the local Palestinian population from the roughly 3 million tourists who visit Jerusalem each year, turning the city into a “Disneyland” focused on promoting Israeli interests.
“The advantage for Israel is that visitors can be prevented from having any dealings with Palestinians,” said Aviv Tartasky, a researcher with Ir Amim, an Israeli organisation that campaigns for equal rights in Jerusalem.
“The local population will be largely erased from the experience of visiting Jerusalem. Tourists will pass over Palestinian residents, via the cable car, and then pass under them via the tunnels.”
Israel's Ministry of Tourism dismissed the criticism. In a statement to The National, the ministry said the cable car project was "a significant milestone in the promotion of Jerusalem and the strengthening of its status as a world tourism capital".
The cable car, the largest project of its type undertaken by Israel, could be completed as early as in two years, its destination the slopes in occupied East Jerusalem just below the Old City, next to Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Some 72 cabins have the capacity to ferry up to 3,000 visitors an hour above mainly Palestinian homes.
Tourists will be channelled from the cable car into a visitor centre run by Jewish settlers in the heart of the crowded Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. They will be led by settler-approved guides underground, through tunnels under Palestinian homes to the foot of the Western Wall.
Blueprints show that visitors will be able to shop in the tunnels, bypassing local Palestinian traders in the Old City market who have long depended on tourism. Israeli officials accelerated the project by bypassing routine planning procedures, although urban planning specialists warn that it will damage the Jerusalem skyline and archaeological sites revealing the origins of modern civilisation.
Equally important, critics say, the Benjamin Netanyahu government and settler groups view the cable car as helping block any possibility of a Palestinian state emerging with East Jerusalem as its capital. They have been emboldened by President Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to transfer the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“It should set off alarm bells that a huge state project like this is being intertwined with a private settler organisation, physically forcing visitors to go through its visitor centre, channelling them into its attractions and activities,” Mr Tartasky said.
He said the cable car was one of the ways Israel was connecting disparate settler compounds in the Palestinian neighbourhoods of occupied Jerusalem.
“It will physically strengthen these settler areas, and mean their organisations have an even greater influence on Israeli authorities.”
The project has been forcefully promoted by the Israeli tourism ministry, headed by Yariv Levin, an ally of Mr Netanyahu, and Jerusalem’s mayor, Moshe Lion. Tenders will be issued as soon as the National Planning Council approves the project, which is expected to be a formality.
In violation of international law, Israel has treated East Jerusalem as annexed territory since it occupied the city in 1967. More than 200,000 Jewish settlers have moved there over subsequent decades
Hanna Swaid, a Palestinian planning specialist and former member of the Israeli parliament, said the cable car was illegal because international law allows major changes in occupied territory only out of military necessity or for the benefit of the population under occupation.
“Even in its own planning justifications, the Israeli authorities are clear the cable car is designed only for the benefit of tourists, Israeli developers and the settler groups overseeing it, not the local Palestinian population. In fact, it will serve to actively harm Palestinians in Jerusalem,” Mr Swaid said.
“It will parachute tourists to Jewish sites like the Western Wall, and marginalise Muslim and Christian sites,” he added.
Palestinians are concerned that the cable car will serve to tighten Israel’s control over access to the Al Aqsa mosque compound, the highly sensitive holy site in the Old City. For decades Israeli authorities have moved to weaken the control of Islamic religious authorities, the Al Waqf, on Al Aqsa, contributing to repeated clashes at the site.
Jews believe the mosque is built over the ruins of a major Jewish temple. The Western Wall, which supports the mosque compound, was originally a retaining wall of the long-lost temple.
“The cable car looks suspiciously like another means for encircling Al Aqsa, for laying siege to it,” Mr Swaid said.
According to official plans, dozens of cabins will run hourly along a 1.5-kilometre route from West Jerusalem, inside Israel’s recognised borders, to the occupied Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, just outside the Old City walls and in the shadow of Al Aqsa.
Tourists will disembark in Silwan into a large visitor centre, the Kedem compound, run by a settler organisation called Elad that has close ties with the Israeli government.
The Kedem centre is the latest venture in the City of David complex, an archaeological site that the settlers of Elad have been using for more than two decades as a base to seize control of the Palestinian neighbourhood.
Visitors will be taken on tours to explore Jerusalem, moving through ancient sewage tunnels that run under Palestinian homes and reach to the Al Aqsa walls.
Additional plans will eventually see the cable car alight at other sites in East Jerusalem. Among the sites are the Mount of Olives, which includes an ancient Jewish cemetery; the Church of Gethsemane, at the reputed site where Judas betrayed Jesus; and the Pool of Siloam, a bathing area referred to in the Old and New Testaments.
Yonatan Mizrahi, the director of Emek Shaveh, a group of Israeli archaeologists opposed to the misuse of archaeology and tourism by Israel, said: “The purpose is to offer tourists a one-dimensional narrative about Jerusalem and its history. They should see all layers of the city’s rich history. Instead they will hear only the parts that relate to Jewish history.”
Mr Mizrahi has been among those leading the criticism of the project. “No other historic city in the world has built a cable car – and for very good reason,” he said.
In March about 30 international architects – some of whom have worked on projects in Jerusalem – wrote to Mr Netanyahu urging him not to pursue what they called short-term interests.
“The project is being promoted by powerful interest groups who put tourism and political agendas above responsibility for safeguarding Jerusalem’s cultural treasures,” the letter said.
The letter followed a statement by 70 Israeli archaeologists, architects and public figures against the cable car in November, when the project was speeded up. They said: “Jerusalem is not Disneyland, and its landscape and heritage are not for sale.”
A French firm, Safege, which worked on the initial feasibility study, pulled out in 2015, reportedly under pressure from the French government over concerns that the project violated international law.
In an apparent bid to ensure the project would go through, the previous Netanyahu government changed planning laws to remove the cable car from local and regional oversight. It also ensured the public could not submit objections.
Instead the scheme is being treated as a “national infrastructure” project, similar to a new railway line or gas pipeline. The National Planning Council offered a curtailed period for organisations to lodge reservations that ended on March 31.
Mr Swaid, who is the director of the Arab Centre for Alternative Planning, drew up a list of reservations on behalf of the Supreme Religious Council of Muslims in Israel.
Other critical comments were submitted by lawyers for the Silwan neighbourhood, the archaeologists of Emek Shaveh, the planning group Bimkom, a Palestinian merchant association in the Old City, and a tour guides group.
The Karaites, a small Jewish sect whose ancient cemetery lies in the path of the cable car, in the Biblical Hinnom Valley, said the project showed “contemptuous disregard for the dignity of the deceased and the Karaite community in general”.
Benjamin Kedar, a former chairman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, lodged a protest.
One of the Silwan homes in the path of the cable car belongs to the Karameh family. The cabins may pass only four metres above the flat roof where toddlers play and the family of 20 hang their washing. Support columns for the cable car may end up being driven into the family’s garden, one of the few green spots in Silwan.
“Nowhere in Israel do cable cars travel over houses, let alone a few metres above,” said Mr Mizrahi. “It seems clear why in this case. Because the houses belong to Palestinians.”
Samer Karameh, a 24-year-old lorry driver, said everyone in Silwan was opposed to the cable car, as it would be helping settler groups like Elad trying to take over their neighbourhood. But he was shocked to learn that it would pass so close to his house.
“We’ll lose all privacy. We won’t be able to open the windows without being seen by thousands of strangers. And it can’t be safe to have these cars travelling just over the heads of our children,” Mr Karameh said.
“We know we won’t be the beneficiaries,” he added. “The authorities won’t give us a permit to build anything here, so all the business will go to the settlers.”