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Jerusalem cable car taken to Israel's highest court

Israel's High Court is set to rule on a controversial cable car project in Jerusalem that would alter the city's landscape.
הדמיה הרכבל לכותל - קרדיט הרלי.jpg

On Nov. 15, the Jerusalem Development Authority was planning to meet with potential bidders for the design, building and operation of a cable car in the city. But instead, a legal, political and architectural battle is raging over the project, and the High Court will soon determine its fate.

According to the authority, the cable car will reduce traffic along the routes to the Old City, and not only benefit "residents, businesspeople and visitors in the area, but also affect all the residents of the city." The project is expected to reduce air and noise pollution and improve tourism experiences.

The project aims to link the western parts of Jerusalem with the Old City. With an already approved government budget of $55 million, the cable car is set to run from a station at a cultural complex in the south of Jerusalem to the Old City’s Dung Gate, the gate closest to the Western Wall. Crossing the Jerusalem Hinnom Valley, the plan is to build one station midway on Mount Zion. The cable car would ferry up to 3,000 tourists and worshipers per hour at peak times in 72 cabins on a four-minute ride.

Former Tourism Minister Yariv Levin of the Likud is behind the plan. The project was embraced by successive tourism ministers as well as by ministers of transportation. They all claim that the project will solve traffic congestion by tourists visiting the historic sites of Jerusalem and offer them yet another unique experience in the holy city.

But the project is being contested by a wide range of groups, and on different grounds.

First, architects and urban planners explain that the plan will require the construction of enormous poles throughout the historic Hinnom Valley and outside the Old City’s ancient walls. The construction would not only alter the city's skyline, and make Jerusalem into a theme park, but also require massive earthmoving work, with trees cut down and land graded. Most of all, they believe that the project in no way suits the architectural heritage of the Old City.

The Israel Association of Architects published a paper on the project in 2018 stating that it "vigorously objects to the plan to build a cable car to the Old City of Jerusalem, which would detract from its status as a world city, diminish its heritage value and wound its residents and friends the world over. Nowhere in the world is there a precedent for something like this, in which a historic city hands over part of what is recognized as a historical and heritage site for a development of the kind proposed."

Communicating its position to Al-Monitor, the association criticized the expedited planning procedure. It called the process irregular, inappropriate and incompatible with the city's geographic and historic importance as well as its centrality to the Abrahamic religions.

Several international architects have signed a petition against the project, denouncing a plan that "will completely alter the ancient city skyline and the character and landscape of the Old City walls." The petition noted, "The project is being promoted by powerful interest groups who put tourism and political agendas above responsibility for safeguarding Jerusalem’s cultural treasures." Its signatories included Santiago Calatrava, Peter Eisenman, Eric Moss, Moshe Safdie and other world-renowned architects as well as professors from Columbia University, Princeton, AA School of Architecture in London, the University of Turin and other prestigious design schools.

Opponents of the plan also include members of the small Karaite community in Israel. They say that the planned route would desecrate their ancient cemetery. In a letter to the Jerusalem Development Authority in 2019, director of the Universal Karaite Judaism Shlomo Gever stated, "It is impossible to move the cemetery that has been used to bury Karaites since the ninth century and we will not agree to have it pass over our land." The authority proposed building a roof over the cemetery, an idea flatly rejected by the Karaites as against their religious practices.

Then there are Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. A year ago, senior PLO member Hanan Ashrawi termed the plan illegal, tweeting, "The Israeli cable car project is an obscene violation of the cultural, historical, spiritual, geographic & demographic character of Jerusalem." For the Palestinians, the project is yet another attempt to Judaize Jerusalem and connect the two sides of the city.

On a more concrete level, residents of the Palestinian Silwan neighborhood below the Western Wall denounce the expropriation decrees issued last September by the Jerusalem Municipality that affect both private lands and open spaces in the neighborhood. They also say that the project will encourage the tourists to bypass the neighborhood and its shops on the way to the Old City and the Western Wall.

Emek Shaveh, a nongovernmental organization that works to "defend cultural heritage rights and protect ancient sites as public assets," explained to Al-Monitor that the project is clearly political, which is why the authorities are expediting it instead of opening the matter to debate with preservation specialists and urban planners. "The entrepreneurs and the Jerusalem Development Authority are pushing forward even before the final ruling at the High Court. We managed just a short while ago, at the very last moment, to prevent them by court order from expropriating lands and cutting off trees. They wanted to start infrastructure work for the cable car," said spokesperson Uri Erlich.

Erlich also said that the High Court had questioned the authority and Jerusalem Municipality over the motives of the project, asking why it was presented as a tourism and not a transportation plan. For Erlich, the distinction is a clear sign that the right-wing government is working to change conditions on the ground.

Jerusalem’s municipality rejects all these claims. "Throughout the planning process of the project, its developers took into account the challenges and sensitivities in the area. Some changes were even made in the plan by the authorized entities, including instructions for preserving and protecting the view. It is in accordance with these changes that the government approved the plan in November 2019," the municipality told Al-Monitor, adding, "The project was constantly developed with public participation, and this will continue to happen in the next stages as well."

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