Floating Over Jerusalem Without Ever Seeing the City's Arab Residents

A planned cable car in the air will ostensibly bring tourists and worshippers to the Old City, but it's linked to a group settling Jews in Arab East Jerusalem

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The cable car that helped supply besieged Jews in Jerusalem during the War of Independence, July 2017.
The cable car that helped supply besieged Jews in Jerusalem during the War of Independence, July 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

In 2021 we’ll glide in a cable car to the Western Wall. The optimists give us four years to get used to the idea. The pessimists say an entire lifetime won’t be enough to accept the sight of transparent cars hovering over Mount Zion and landing near the Old City wall.

'The project isn’t intended to solve a transportation problem but simply to bring people to the City of David, a site that’s turning Silwan into a Jewish site via tourism.'

The plans and simulations look like Disneyland on a spring day. They show well-dressed tourists thronging to the Western Wall in glass compartments – a long line of futuristic bubbles hanging by a thread over the Ben Hinnom Valley.

According to the Jerusalem municipality, at the first stage the cable car in the air will have three stops – the Khan Theater, Mount Zion and Dung Gate. At the second stage other lines will lead to the Pool of Siloam, the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane.

The city says that after the completion of the fast-train-to-Jerusalem project, “the cableway will be part of the city’s mass transportation system, with some 40 cars holding 10 passengers each. The cableway will be able to serve some 3,000 passengers an hour in each direction and move at 21 kilometers per hour” – 13 miles per hour.

But the cableway’s location makes you wonder. Clearly it’s not intended for the many worshippers who head for the Western Wall, as most of them come from neighborhoods north of the Old City such as Mea She’arim and the adjacent Musrara neighborhood. These worshippers will continue to enter the Old City from the Damascus Gate to the north or the Jaffa Gate to the west; it’s highly doubtful they’ll bother to go to a cable-car stop and hover over the city.

Infographic showing route of proposed Jerusalem cable-car project, March 2015. A French company that was to play a key planning role in the system has pulled out of the project.

Also, it’s still impossible to know who will operate the cableway. Four years ago the French company Safege was hired to conduct a feasibility study, but the firm dropped out to “avoid political commentary.” Safege reportedly pulled out because the French foreign and finance ministries warned it about the project’s political implications.

Enter right-wing NGO

To understand the political thread the cableway is suspended on, you have to know the location of the route and the stops. The stop near the Western Wall is to be built near Dung Gate on the roof of the Kedem compound 20 meters (66 feet) from the Old City wall; this is near the entrance to the City of David archaeological site. Although the site is a national park, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority handed operation of it over to Elad, a right-wing group that helps settles Jews in East Jerusalem.

An artist's rendition of the planned cableway over Jerusalem.Credit: Mor Dagan

In recent years extensive archaeological work was carried out in the compound, over which a large visitors center for the City of David is to be built. The cable-car stop is due to be built on this building’s roof.

“The City of David is pleased with any government initiative that strengthens tourist accessibility to ancient Jerusalem and helps broaden historical interest in the place where it all began,” an Elad official told Haaretz.

The Ben Hinnom Valley, July 2017Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Back in January 2014, Haaretz’s Nir Hasson wrote about the Kedem compound: “A mere 20 meters from the Old City wall and about 100 meters from the Western Wall Plaza, on the threshold of one of East Jerusalem’s most crowded, rundown neighborhoods, Silwan, a grandiose project is being planned. Long before its cornerstone has been laid, this project is raising unprecedented objections.”

David Kroyanker, an architect and architectural historian of Jerusalem, said about the Kedem compound in that article: “I’m closely familiar with Jerusalem’s planning for 45 years and I’ve never encountered such a brazen plan or one with such destructive potential.”

At the time, the cable-car stop had not yet been added to the bombastic compound near the Old City wall.

“The cableway passengers will see only what Elad wants them to see,” says Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for Ir Amim, a group that promotes “a more equitable and sustainable” Jerusalem, as its website puts it.

“The project isn’t intended to solve a transportation problem but simply to bring people to the City of David, a site that’s turning Silwan into a Jewish site via tourism. [Tourists] will visit the Western Wall and City of David and buy souvenirs only in the visitors’ center store. That will constitute the ancient-Jerusalem experience for them.”

Tourists in Jerusalem. Credit: Ilan Asayag

Drifting above Silwan

The cableway will complicate the situation further, Tatarsky says. The enterprise will let tourists get to the Western Wall from points west without seeing the city’s Arab residents at all. Silwan residents see the cable-car project as another way of evicting them from their homes, he says. The cableway isn’t planned as a means of transportation for Silwan’s residents; it will drift above them in the service of paying tourists who want to go to the Western Wall.

Later, while walking through Silwan, Tatarsky quotes Mayor Nir Barkat from another Nir Hasson article: “The enterprise is intended to make its users understand who this city’s real landlord is.” According to Barkat, two of the five stops will be at the Elad-run City of David site.

Khaled Zar, a Silwan resident, says the project’s main danger is the destruction of the village’s cemetery. “They intend to take a third of the cemetery from us, and already now they’re not allowing us to bury our dead there,” he says. “The Nature and Parks Authority is letting this happen on its land, leaving us no choice but to fight it in the courts.”

For its part, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said: “The authority understands the need to improve accessibility and promotion of tourism in Jerusalem with a cableway, but we’ll state our position when a detailed plan is presented.”

Tourists at the City of David archaeological site in Jerusalem. the Israel Nature and Parks Authority handed operation of it over to Elad, a right-wing group that helps settles Jews in East Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fittusi

Officials whom Haaretz asked about the project’s security aspects – will the cableway increase passengers’ security on the way to the Western Wall or create a large target floating over Silwan? – declined to answer directly.

The project’s developers may be encouraged to know that 70 years ago a modest cable car already hovered over the Ben Hinnom Valley and floated from where Mount Zion Hotel is today, near the Cinemateque and south of Sultan’s Pool, to Mount Zion beyond the wadi.

An attractive little museum, entrance free via the Mount Zion Hotel’s lobby, perpetuates the memory of this ambitious project in 1948 by Ariel Hefetz, a military engineer.

Hefetz suspended a 200-meter-long steel cable to connect an outpost on Mount Zion to St. John’s Hospital (today the Mount Zion Hotel). The cable carried a 250-kilogram (551-pound) car that delivered supplies to the besieged Jewish parts in the city’s east. Three soldiers operated the cableway manually and the trip lasted about two minutes. During the day the cable was lowered to the ground and concealed from the Arab Legion soldiers standing on the Old City wall.

The 70-year-old cable car, pulley apparatus, photographs and documents are shown at the museum. Mount Zion looks very close from the window. One of my friends from Jerusalem, referring to the Jews’ plight in the city during the 1948 war, told me a few days ago: “If they’re bringing back the cableway, maybe they should go all the way and bring back the siege on the city.”

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