Israel's Housing Cabinet Green Lights Controversial Jerusalem Old City Cable Car Plan

The plan, which was rejected by environmentalists, architects and local Palestinians, has long been disputed by critics who say a transition government shouldn't approve it

Illustration of the cable car crossing over the Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

Israel's Housing Cabinet approved on Monday the controversial construction plan of a cable car to the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City.

The decision to green light the project came despite an urgent inquiry sent several days ago by the plan's opponents to Attorney General Avichai Mendelbit in which they argued that a project of such importance cannot be approved by a transition government.

Last week, Mendelblit's aides replied that the matter is being looked into, but in the meantime the Housing Cabinet approved the plan, which still needs to undergo a procedural approval by the government. The plan's opponents intend to petition the High Court of Justice against it.    

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The plan has drawn widespread opposition from architects, local Palestinian residents and environmentalists who criticized the expected damage to the historic landscape of the Old City. In addition, critics say the cable car won’t solve the area’s transportation and access problems.

Nevertheless, the plan was fast-tracked by the National Infrastructure Committee and promoted by the Tourism Ministry and the Jerusalem Development Authority.

According to those objecting to the plan, the cabel car project was promoted by the National Infrastructure Committee and not by the District Planning Committee in order to more easily fend off objections to the plan.   

The 1.4-kilometer cable car line will begin at the First Station compound, passing over the neighborhoods of Abu Tor and the Valley of Hinnom, then through the Mount Zion parking lot and from there to its last stop, the Kedem visitor center in the Silwan neighborhood. From the Kedem center, visitors will proceed on foot to the Western Wall.

Simulation of the cable car

According to the Housing Cabinet, headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the cable car will be part of the public transportation system and would make the Old City more accessible, obviating the need for dozens of tourist buses that enter the area each day. Each individual car will be able to fit up to 73 passengers at a time, and it is estimated that the cable cars can transport up to 3,000 people each hour.

Speaking of the decision to approve the project, Kahlon said: "The Western Wall is not accessible enough for the broad public. We've waited 2,000 years [to return] to the Western Wall, and it's impossible that heavy traffic prevents thousands of people from praying, visiting and taking part in military and national ceremonies that are taking place there."

Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze'ev Elkin called the plan a "strategic project to promote tourism in the southeast basin of the Old City. We are gradually transforming a vision into new reality and soon the Western Wall and other important sites in the Old City will be more accessible."

Opponents warn of damage to the Old City

Opponents say that the project will mar Jerusalem’s Old City and bolster the Jewish presence in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan.

Furthermore, the Karaite community has rejected the Jerusalem Development Authority’s request to build the cable's roof over the community’s ancient cemetery in the Hinnom Valley.  

The Karaite community accepts the authority of the Hebrew Bible but not of the Oral Law that is codified in the Talmud.

According to Orthodox Jewish tradition, Jews who are kohanim — descendants of priests — are not permitted to enter cemeteries and it is expected that rabbinical authorities would ban them from using the cable cars if the line passes over an unroofed Karaite burial ground. Instead, a large sign will be placed at the entrance to the cable cars recommending to kohanim who strictly follow the laws pertaining to them to avoid using the cable cars and find others ways to reach the Western Wall.

Attorney Eitay Mack, who represents left-wing NGO Emek Shaveh, wrote to Mendelblit in July, demanding that the decision be held until a permanent government is formed, to which the attornet general's office replied that the plan would be brought before the proper professional figures at the Justice Ministry before being approved.

Last Thursday Mack again warned against the plan being advanced under a transition government: "There is not a shadow of doubt that holding a debate on and approving the cable car plan at this time will be received by the public as a move arising from alien considerations, which will cost the Israeli taxpayers hundreds of millions of shekels," Mack wrote.