Cable car tourist project in Jerusalem sparks controversies

Sunset over the Old City of Jerusalem, as seen from the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. ( Andrew McIntire/TPS)

Jerusalem (TPS) – The Jerusalem Municipality has been promoting a unique initiative to build a cable car that would connect the city’s western neighborhoods with the Old City and Mount of Olives in its east. While the city intends for the project to serve its residents as well as the many tourists who visit Jerusalem and its various holy sites, the project has become a topic of public debate following claims that the plan is also the result of political motives.

The plan, which has not yet been approved by the Transportation Ministry, details five stops for the cable car, including one near the Old City’s Dung Gate, one on the Mount of Olives, and another at Gethsemane, a Christian holy site near the Mount of Olives. The Jerusalem Municipality said that the cable car would cater to members of all three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

“The cable car project is part of a comprehensive transportation network which will also include tram lines and a mass public transport system,” the municipality said in a statement. “It will enable fast, efficient, and environmentally-friendly rides to the sites visited by millions of visitors from all religions every year.”

The initiative was welcomed by the Ir David Foundation, an Israeli NGO that aims to strengthen the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and that is based at the City of David.

“We welcome any initiative that can reduce traffic on the roads, reduce air pollution rates, and allow residents and tourists to quickly reach the sites of ancient Jerusalem,” Ir David spokeswoman Reut Vilf told TPS.

However, the plan was also strongly criticized after Mayor Nir Barkat presented the cable car route last week to Likud party activists at one of its planned stops at the City of David, an ancient part of Jerusalem adjacent to the Old City. Barkat said that there would be another stop at the nearby Pool of Siloam, enabling the cable car to travel over the predominantly Arab neighborhood of Silwan. Barkat was quoted as saying that this would “show who owns this city.”

Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, president of the Supreme Muslim Council in Jerusalem, responded by calling the cable car a “dangerous” provocation which is “part of a larger effort to Judaize the city, changing its Arab and Muslim character.” Sabri said the project should be halted immediately, since its goal is political and “constitutes an attack on Islamic land and a desecration of Muslim cemeteries.”

The Fatah movement, the party ruling the Palestinian Authority (PA), also warned Israel of the consequences of the cable car project. Rafat Alayan, a Jerusalem spokesperson for Fatah, threatened that “the Palestinian people will never allow the cable car to be built and will not accept its existence.”

Alayan added sarcastically that if the cable car project is successful, Israel would next attempt to link Tel Aviv to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which houses Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba shrine.

Criticism was also voiced by Israeli left-wing sources such as Ir Amim (“City of Nations”), an NGO that focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem.

“Building large scale tourist projects that erase the Palestinian presence and impose a singular, nationalist Jewish narrative on Jerusalem is an almost certain formula for exacerbating the conflict and for the further erosion of prospects for a two-state solution,” Ir Amim Director of International Relations and Advocacy Betty Herschman explained to TPS.

The Jerusalem municipality did not directly address the accusations, but indirectly denied them by emphasizing the universal goal of the project.

“The mayor’s vision is a cable car that would connect the relevant points of interest for all three religions in the Old City Basin,” said the statement by the municipality. “The project’s implementation is currently being formulated by professional teams and it will of course be discussed further in all relevant forums when the planning is completed.”