High Court Okays Controversial Western Wall Cable Car Project

The High Court of Justice ruling removes all obstacles to the controversial initiative after nixing petition

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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A simulation of the planned cable car project.
A simulation of the planned cable car project.Credit: Jerusalem Development Authority
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The High Court of Justice on Sunday rejected four petitions against a plan to build a cable car from downtown Jerusalem to the Western Wall, in the Old City. The project, one of the most controversial initiatives in recent decades, is now due to be launched in the near future.

Approved by the government in 2019, the plan involves construction of a 1.4-kilometer (0.9 mile)-long cable car line, from the First Station complex at the end of Emek Refaim Street, passing over Hinnom Valley to the Kedem compound in Silwan, near the Old City's Dung Gate, where the right-wing Elad association is planning to build a visitors center. There will be a stop en route in the parking lot on Mount Zion.

The cable car is being promoted by the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Tourism Ministry as a national infrastructure project. Such projects are discussed in the National Infrastructure Committee, rather than by regular planning bodies, and objections cannot be submitted to that panel.

Petitions against the cable car that were submitted in late 2019 to the High Court by the NGOs Emek Shaveh and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, Palestinian residents of the area, members of the Karaite community (a small Jewish sect) and various academic figures listed several arguments against the plan. For example, the petitioners stated that the interim government that originally advanced the project (under then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) was not authorized to do so.

Furthermore, they said that the plan had been presented by developers as a transportation project meant to resolve problems of accessibility and traffic congestion in the city, but that it had actually been promoted by the Tourism Ministry and not the Transportation Ministry. In addition, it was claimed that the cable car lines will obstruct the view in the area and desecrate the Karaite cemetery above which the cable car is to pass. A number of leading architects also warned against damage to the Old City's skyline, adding that the cable car would not solve transportation problems in the vicinity.

However, Justice Yosef Elron ruled Sunday that there had been no flaws in the decisions made by the committees that discussed the initiative or in the way the government had advanced it. Elron added that the cable car project will not only help in terms of transportation but will be a tourist attraction, and therefore there is no reason it should not be promoted by the Tourism Ministry.

As for the claims of the Karaite community, Elron wrote that the court must decide between honoring the dead and considering the public interest involved in implementing the project. The Karaites had proved in court that, as opposed to what was claimed by the developers, the cemetery is indeed still in use; representatives of the community submitted an opinion to the effect that passage of the cable car over the cemetery renders it impure and therefore it cannot be used.

Justice Elron determined that harm to the Karaite community was proportional, based on an earlier ruling regarding construction of the Museum of Tolerance in downtown Jerusalem over the remains of a Muslim cemetery there. However, he noted: “There is substance to the claim of the representatives of the Karaite community that because the project was advanced at first based on the mistaken assumption that the cemetery was not in use, an examination of alternatives was conducted after the plan had already been decided upon. However, lacking a practical alternative…this is not sufficient to impact the outcome.”

Elron also cited the position of Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli in his ruling. Last November, Haaretz reported that Michaeli opposed the scheme, claiming that the cable car would play no significant role in terms of transportation, and noting that “the damages will outweigh the benefits.” In response to a question in the Knesset plenum by MK Alon Tal (Kahol Lavan), Michaeli added that her ministry was promoting the new yellow line of the light rail train to the Western Wall, and stressed that planners should consider “the scenic damage the [cable car] project will cause in the Old City and in our heritage sites, as well as the political and security ramifications of promoting such a project."

Elron ruled that Michaeli’s opposition does not influence the legality of the project, as opposed to the master plan that has been approved by the relevant committees and which has legal standing.

In summarizing his ruling, the justice wrote that any decision “that would have been made in an attempt to solve the existing congestion and improve tourism infrastructure in the area – whether it had been decided to increase shuttles or to do nothing – would have harmed someone in some way. There is no ‘perfect’ solution.”

For her part, Justice Anat Baron noted in her remarks: "It would have been better for the project to be reconsidered, however, as my colleague [Elron] has pointed out, there are no justifications for intervening in the decisions of the authorized bodies.”

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon welcomed the High Court decision, adding that the city would “continue to advance the project energetically.” The cable car, he said, constituted “a solution to heavy traffic congestion and will allow easy access to the Western Wall and to the City of David. Just as the light rail serves everyone, this will be the case with the cable car, which will bring a new transportation message to all of Jerusalem, and to the visitors who will enjoy it.”

The Emek Shaveh NGO offered this comment: "The time the court took to formulate its ruling, when weighed against the simplicity of that ruling, shows that the decision was not as simple as the court presents it. It appears that proper planning procedures and the public interest were not at the forefront of the court’s considerations, just as they were not at the forefront of the government’s considerations when it chose to approve the cable car project… The public struggle has just begun and we are doing everything we can to prevent construction of this terrible project.”

Attorney Sami Arshid, representing the residents of Silwan in the High Court petitions, said: “The ruling green-lights the cable car project, which does serious damage to the historical, cultural, religious and social fabric of Jerusalem. This is a controversial, megalomaniacal project that promotes a political agenda. We regret that the court rejected the petitions and did not intervene to prevent this disaster to Jerusalem, which is the outcome of a faulty and heavy-handed process. The timing of the ruling is also surprising, published suddenly on Sunday morning without informing the parties beforehand so they could prepare, despite the legal and public importance of the ruling."

Added Arshid: “The cable car project will cause grave damage to the lives and the property of the residents of Silwan and the Old City, in particular. The residents of Silwan see that all this is being done to strengthen the presence and control of the Elad association in the area, and to promote a controversial political agenda regarding management of the lifestyle of the residents of East Jerusalem, and [this will] change the city of Jerusalem and do particular damage the cultural landscape of the Old City.”

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