13 September 2019 | Jonathan Cook

It is the Israeli government’s latest ambitious tourism project for occupied East Jerusalem: an aerial experience that has united planning experts, archeologists, architects, Palestinians—and even a tiny community of Jews—in protest.

A $55 million cable car is due for completion within two years, its destination the slopes just below the Old City, next to the al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock shrine, two emblems of Jerusalem’s skyline. Some 72 cabins are expected to ferry up to 3,000 visitors an hour along wires above the heads of Palestinians.

The project’s goal, according to critics, is related to neither tourism nor transport. It is to hide the local Palestinian population and their history from the millions of tourists who visit Jerusalem each year, turning the ancient city instead into a Jewish “Disneyland.”

Visitors will be channeled from the cable car into a compound run by Jewish settlers in the heart of the crowded Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. From there, they will be led by settler-approved guides underground, through tunnels under Palestinian homes to the foot of the Western Wall.

Plans show that visitors will even be able to shop in the tunnels, bypassing local Palestinian traders in the Old City market who have long depended on tourism for their livelihoods.

Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher with Ir Amim, an organization that campaigns for equal rights in Jerusalem, said the cable car was primarily a political project to cement Israel’s control over the densely populated Palestinian parts of the occupied city. “The advantage for Israel is that visitors can be prevented from having any dealings with Palestinians,” he said. “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, minimizing the time spent at street level where Palestinians are visible.”

Hanna Swaid, a planning expert and former Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, agreed. “Israel is using technology to change the city’s geography to emphasize Jewish control and a Jewish narrative. It will parachute tourists to Jewish sites like the Western Wall and marginalize Muslim and Christian sites.”

The cable car has been fast-tracked, even though experts warn that it will damage both the skyline of a city holy to all three faiths and archeological sites revealing the origins of modern civilization.

But equally significant, critics note, Israel’s far-right government and extremist settler groups view the cable car as a key weapon in their wider political struggle to block any possibility of a Palestinian state emerging with East Jerusalem as its capital.

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.

Palestinians are concerned, too, that the cable car will serve to tighten Israel’s control over access to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the highly sensitive Islamic holy site in the Old City over which Palestinians fear Israel is seeking to assert sovereignty. For decades, Israeli authorities have moved to weaken the control of Islamic religious authorities, the Waqf.

Jews believe the mosque is built over the ruins of an ancient temple. The Western Wall, which today supports the mosque compound, was originally a retaining wall of the long-lost temple.

In March Israeli security forces and Palestinians clashed repeatedly after Jewish settler groups, backed by the Israeli government, sought to prevent the Waqf from opening an area for Islamic prayer within the compound.

“It is clear everything that is being done by Israel is moving closer to the [al-Aqsa] compound, completing its encirclement,” said Tatarsky. “We even hear government ministers boasting as much.” Swaid agreed, adding, “The cable car looks suspiciously like another means for laying siege to al-Aqsa.”

According to opponents, the cable car is a sign of Israel’s growing confidence in making unilateral moves in Jerusalem in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy there more than a year ago. The cable car project has been aggressively promoted by the Israeli tourism ministry, headed by Yariv Levin, an ally of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and Jerusalem’s mayor, Moshe Lion.

According to official plans, dozens of cabins will run hourly along a nearly mile-long route from West Jerusalem, inside Israel’s recognized borders, to the occupied Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, just outside the Old City walls and in the shadow of al-Aqsa. Tourists will disembark in Silwan into a large archeological compound run by a settler organization called Elad that enjoys close ties to the Israeli government.

The Kedem compound, itself being fast-tracked, is the latest venture in the City of David complex, an archeological site that the settlers of Elad have been using for more than two decades to gradually seize control of the Palestinian neighborhood. From the Kedem center, visitors will be taken on tours to explore ancient Jerusalem, moving through ancient sewage tunnels that run under Palestinian homes and reach the walls of the al-Aqsa compound.

The plan has won fervent backing from the Trump administration. In late June U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, wielded a sledgehammer to smash down a symbolic wall inaugurating the main tunnel, which has been renamed the Pilgrimage Road (see p. 13).

The participation of the two U.S. envoys in the ceremony offered further proof that Washington is tearing up the peacemaking rulebook. Ambassador Friedman called the City of David complex “an essential component of the national heritage of the State of Israel.” Ending the occupation there would be “akin to America returning the Statue of Liberty.”

Additional plans for the cable car will eventually see it alight at other sites in occupied East Jerusalem. They include 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 both the Old and New Testaments.

Yonatan Mizrahi, director of Emek Shaveh, a group of Israeli archeologists opposed to the misuse of archeology and tourism by Israel, said: “This is one of the world’s most important historic cities and its character needs to be preserved. No other historic city in the world has built a cable car—and for very good reason.”

Some 30 leading international architects—many with previous experience working on major Jerusalem projects—wrote to Netanyahu in March urging him not to pursue what they called “short-term interests.” They argued, “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 followed a statement by 70 Israeli archeologists, architects and public figures against the cable car last November, when the project was put on a planning fast-track. They warned: “Jerusalem is not Disneyland, and its landscape and heritage are not for sale.”

One of the signatories, Moshe Safdie, an internationally renowned architect, (who designed illegal settlements and worked to make East Jerusalem Jewish) told the Israeli news website Ynet at the time: “Imagine a huge cable car flying over the Vatican and dumping tourists in front of St. Peter’s. It’s unprecedented.”

The project, noted Swaid, violates international law, which 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.”

Because of these concerns, a French firm, Safege, which worked on the initial feasibility study, pulled out in 2015, reportedly under pressure from the French government. In an apparent bid to ensure the project was driven through, the Netanyahu government changed the country’s planning laws to remove the cable car from the oversight of local and regional planning bodies. It also ensured the public could not submit objections.

Instead the scheme has been treated as a major “national infrastructure” project, like a new railway line or gas pipeline. The more opaque national planning council passed the plan in June, after offering a highly curtailed period for lodging reservations. It now needs only formal approval by the government.

Swaid, now the director of the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, drew up reservations on behalf of the Supreme Religious Council of Muslims in Israel. Other critical comments were submitted by lawyers for the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, the archeologists of Emek Shaveh, the planning group Bimkom, a traders’ 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, protested that 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, also lodged a protest.

The project had been developed without any input from the Palestinian community, the Waqf authorities at al-Aqsa or the international community, noted Swaid. He said UNESCO, the U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural arm, should have been consulted because Jerusalem’s Old City and its walls are a World Heritage Site.

The immediate area around it, which Israel is actively developing alongside the settlers of Elad, is supposed to serve as a buffer zone to harmful development. “All these interested parties have been excluded because Israel knows they would never consent to the project,” he said.

The Israeli tourism ministry dismissed the criticisms. In a statement, 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.”

Pressure is being stepped up on the residents of Silwan. The family of one of the best-known activists there, Jawad Siyam, a community organizer, was evicted from its home by Elad settlers in July. Many dozens more Palestinian families have suffered a similar fate.

One of the homes in the direct path of the cable car houses 20 members of the Karameh family. According to the plans, the cabins may pass only four meters above the flat roof where the family hangs their laundry and toddlers play.

The columns needed to support the project may also end up being driven into the family’s garden, one of the few undeveloped spots in this densely crowded neighborhood. “Nowhere in Israel do cable cars travel over houses, let alone a few meters above,” said Mizrahi. “It seems clear why in this case. Because the houses belong to Palestinians.”

Samer Karameh, a 24-year-old truck driver, said everyone in Silwan was opposed to the cable car but he was shocked to learn that it would pass so close to his house. “That’s terrible,” he said. “We’ll lose all privacy. We won’t be able to open the windows without being seen by thousands of strangers. And I can’t see how it is safe to have these cars travelling over the heads of our children.”

He added: “We have heard nothing from the municipality. It’s like they are keeping us in the dark.” Like other residents, Karameh said that, while the official goal was to make the area more accessible to tourists, it would really be helping the settlers take over their neighborhood.

“We know we won’t benefit,” he said. “The authorities won’t give us a permit to build anything here, so all the business will go to the settlers.”

Jonathan Cook is a journalist based in Nazareth and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. He is the author of Blood and Religion and Israel and the Clash of Civilisations ­(available from AET’s Middle East Books and More).