A stormy public meeting was held in Jerusalem recently in which architects, academics, preservation experts and tour guides heaped scorn on the far-right government’s scheme to ferry up to 3,000 people per hour in up to 72 ten-person gondolas in a cable car system extended over the Old City’s Holy Basin.
Participants in the meeting characterized the plan as a poorly thought out, Disneyesque idea that will scar the historic landscape with 15 massive pylons and sully unique views of the UNESCO World Heritage Site (both the Old City itself and its walls). The project will do little to solve what those present agreed were unacceptable levels of traffic congestion and pollution around the Old City walls that hamper access to sites revered by the three monotheistic religions.
Ministers, outgoing Likud Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and at least three candidates running to be his likely successor in next month’s municipal elections argue that the 1.4-kilometer (4,600 foot) long track of the cable car – the bulk of which will be located in mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem – will serve as a tourist attraction. However, more importantly, proponents of the plan see it as the greenest, least disruptive, most immediately possible, and best value-for-money solution to getting visitors from West Jerusalem to the main entrance to the Western Wall, the most venerated site where Jews may pray. The project, a Tourism Ministry initiative, has been floating around in the Jerusalem Municipality for several years.
Two years ago, Mayor Barkat – who had recently joined the Likud – told party activists that it would form part of an infrastructure that would bring “the wider world [to this part of East Jerusalem], to understand who really owns this city,” the Haaretz daily newspaper reported at the time.
Symbolically, the government chose this year’s Jerusalem Day – which marks the annexation of the eastern portion of the city and the occupation of the Palestinian territories after the 1967 Six Day War – to announce a NIS 200 million ($55.2 million) budget for the scheme.
In a scalding letter read out at the meeting held in Jerusalem, Moshe Safdie, an internationally renowned Canadian-Israeli architect, said that while the project would “no doubt upgrade the facilities of the City of David Foundation,” it was wrongheaded and inappropriate: “A cable car system, running close to the Old City walls …will provide a precedent that, without doubt, will spark international opposition and criticism.”
Omri Salmon, director of the Council for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, said, also in a letter, that the project had to be stopped.
Professor Irit Amit-Cohen, Chairwoman of the Israeli branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) said she feared the project would cause “great harm” at a time when historic cities across the world were delicately dealing with similar issues “with tweezers.” David Cassuto, a former Jerusalem deputy mayor, pointed out that historic cities such as Rome, with 15 million tourists a year, and Athens, with seven million, had seen no need for a cable car.
Yoni Shapira, Chairman of Heritage Trail, the association of tour guides for incoming tourists, said that the cable car would not change the way tour guides with large groups functioned, although the service could attract individual families. Lawyer Sami Arsheid, who represents residents of Silwan, said Palestinians had not been consulted and noted that the invitation to the meeting was written in Hebrew only. Others thought it unlikely that Palestinians would use the system because of its association with the far-right “City of David Foundation”.