Jerusalem Is Finally United - in Opposition to This Plan

The Karaite Jewish sect, Palestinians, tour guides and renowned archaeologists and architects have filed complaints about what they see as an offensive, intrusive project linking East and West Jerusalem

Artist's rendering of the cable car project slated to link East and West Jerusalem
The Jerusalem Development Authority

The Karaite community has joined other Jerusalem residents and public figures in opposing the construction of a cable car in the city, which is slated to pass over a cemetery belonging to the ancient Jewish sect.

The group's reservations about the project have been filed along with those submitted by residents of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan – over whose homes the cable car will run – as well as by architects, tour guides and archaeologists. In a few weeks the National Infrastructure Committee is due to discuss the complaints that have been filed.

According to the plan, approved two months ago, the 1.4-kilometer-long cable car will run between the First Station compound at the end of Emek Refaim Street in West Jerusalem's Germany Colony, and the Kedem compound – a new visitors center in the City of David, near the Dung Gate in East Jerusalem. The project is being advanced by the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Tourism Ministry. Such plans are discussed by the National Infrastructure Committee and not by local planning bodies; one cannot submit objections to it, only reservations.

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Members of the country's 40,000-strong Karaite community, which accepts the authority of the Hebrew Bible but not of the Oral Law that is codified in the Talmud, said they had not been consulted about the scheme.

Simulation of the cable car

Aaron Yefet, a member of a Karaite family, died in 2014 and is buried in the community's ancient cemetery in the Hinnom Valley, abutting the Old City walls. His widow and children submitted a formal reservation last week to the cable car plan.

“It is most aggravating to see that the attitude of the authorities to the Karaites and their cemetery has been one of total disregard – not to mention the contempt and serious, shameful and outrageous offense done to the deceased and their families,” stated the complaint, which was submitted by attorney Eitan Peleg on the family’s behalf.

The protest by the Yefets and by others in their community was spurred by the discovery that the project's planners were aware of the cemetery and had even intended to build a roof over it to serve as a barrier so that kohanim – members of the Jewish priestly class, who are not permitted to enter cemeteries due to the fear of ritual impurity – would be able to use the cable car.

The cemetery of the Jewish Karaite community in Jerusalem's Hinnom Valley, abutting the Old City walls, February 2019.
Emil Salman

According to the Karaite faith, putting a roof over a cemetery is tantamount to desecrating it.

“The plan allows forcible entry into the Karaite domain to protect kohanim who might want to use the cable car,” according to the document filed. “There is no greater brazenness, not to mention bullying and aggression that can shown, with contemptuous disregard, for the dignity of the deceased and the Karaite community in general.”

In the complaint filed earlier by the sect, attorney Rom Golan wrote, “Is it conceivable that anyone would approve a plan that would prevent Jews from entering the cemeteries on the Mount of Olives or in Givat Shaul? Would it ever be conceivable that a scheme could be approved that would prevent Jews from being buried in their only cemetery in any city in Europe, and prevent them from entering it?”

Old City merchants have also filed a reservation against the cable car plan, arguing that it will be especially damaging to the city's Palestinian residents. The terminus is slated to be the Dung Gate, but the way to the Muslim Quarter passes through the Western Wall plaza that's entered through that gate. However, for security reasons Palestinians' entry is restricted at the plaza, and they will have to make a lengthy detour to reach the Muslim Quarter. Nor can they reach the latter via the Temple Mount, because the Mughrabi Gate near the Western Wall is closed to Palestinians. The merchants also argue that the cable car will divert tourists in the Old City, will be damaging to their businesses and undermine their freedom of occupation and trade.

Attorney Sami Arsheid, who represents the merchants and the residents of Silwan, further contends that the cable car, which will pass only a few meters over the residents’ homes, will undermine their quality of life and privacy. He also argued that if this is being proposed as a means of transportation for the local community – it should operate on Saturday, similar to other public transport in East Jerusalem.

A lengthy and detailed document setting out other reservations to the cable car scheme has also been submitted by the Israel Association of Architects and Urban Planners. It states: “The proposed plan constitutes a serious blow to Jerusalem’s historic landscape in its most important and sensitive areas."

According to the association, and contrary to the opinion of the plan’s sponsors, the stations and the cable car itself will be very prominent against the backdrop of Jerusalem’s unique and historic basin.

The Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights NGO claimed in its own reservation that the plan does not meet the prerequisites for a national infrastructure plan, since the tourism minister never declared that the cable car would constitute a form of national infrastructure, and that such infrastructure cannot traverse land zoned to remain open areas.

For its part Emek Shaveh, an archaeological organization, argued that the Transportation Ministry is not a party to the submission of the formal plan, even though it is being defined as a public transportation initiative. The group also asserts that the cable car would damage the landscape and archaeology of the Old City, and could even undermine the Old City’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Among those who signed off on the Emek Shaveh document are world-renown architect Moshe Safdie, Israel Prize winner Prof. Amihai Mazar and Benjamin Kedar, former chairman of the board of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Moreshet Derech, an association of tour guides, has claimed that the cable car would not be an effective transportation method for large groups of tourists, which would continue to use buses. Another reservation was filed by the Focolare Italian religious organization that owns land on Mount Zion, on which one of the supporting pillars of the cable car is supposed to be erected.

The Jerusalem Development Authority said in response: "This project has been synchronized with the rest of the transportation and infrastructure projects in Jerusalem. The Tourism Ministry is promoting the project and the budgeting for it because it will make the Old City more accessible to visitors, tourists and the greater public. The cable car will operate regularly and very frequently, and can transport some 3,000 people per hour in each direction, in coordination with all the other mass-transit systems in the area. Once operational, the cable car is expected to bring about a 30-percent reduction in the use of private vehicles and 50-percent reduction in use of buses in the vicinity."

Moreover, the authority added, "the cable car is no more than a complementary means of mass transit, and the claims of those opposing it are quite similar to the criticisms voiced years ago at the launch of the light-rail train project, whose importance to every resident of the city today cannot be understated."

With respect to the Karaite community's claims, it said: "From its earliest days the cable car project has been managed in a transparent way, with ongoing coordination from all parts of the public, including representatives of that sect as well. In recent days there have been new meetings with them and with all the professionals involved in the project in order to come to a solution acceptable to everyone."

In response to the complaints of the merchants, the authority noted that, "the cable car will not divert tourist traffic as it exists today. Entrance by way of the Lion's and Jaffa Gates and all other gates will be the same as it is at present, however it will be much easier and more convenient at the Dung Gate. Instead of 45-minute traffic jams, it will take four-and-a-half minutes to reach it. In this way visitors will be able to spend more time in the Old City rather than spending it in traffic en route to the Dung Gate."