What does it look like when 900 landmines are (safely) detonated at once? Sappers working to disable landmines in the Land of the Monasteries found out last week, as the Israel Defense Force’s Combat Engineering Unit detonated the largest minefield at the site to date in the seven heavily-mined church compounds on the Israeli-Jordanian border.
After more than a week of preparation, sappers detonated a line of anti-tank mines with a single explosion that sent dust dozens of meters into the air. There are approximately 6,500 landmines in the Land of the Monasteries, and this 900-mine explosion was the biggest single detonation since demining work began at the site over a year ago.
Christians believe that Qasr al-Yahud, located about 10 kilometers (six miles) east of Jericho, is the spot on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. Qasr al-Yahud was a popular Christian pilgrimage spot until 1968, when Israel blocked access and enfolded it in the closed military zone along the border with Jordan, fearing terrorists could use the churches as a staging ground for attacks on Israeli settlements. The Jordan River is only a few meters wide at that point.
For decades, the bullet-pocked church buildings stood shuttered, yellow signs flapping in the wind warning of landmines.
In 2011, COGAT — the Defense Ministry unit that liaises with the Palestinians — and the Nature and Parks Authority opened an access road that leads to the baptismal site on the Jordan River. Tens of thousands of people come each year, especially around the holiday of the Epiphany, celebrated on January 18.
In 2016, HALO Trust, a UK-based demining group that operates in 27 countries and territories around the world, announced it would begin the process of clearing the landmines around Qasr al-Yahud. However, the actual demining work was delayed for two years due to funding issues.
HALO Trust has provided around NIS 10 million ($2.6 million), largely funded by donations, while the Israeli government has provided NIS 7.5 million ($2 million).
“The removal of the mines today is part of a plan to return the land to the monasteries and churches and to allow the public to walk safely in this land with thousands of years of history,” said Col. Udi Tzur, the commander of the 417th Regional Brigade, which is responsible for the Jordan Valley region.
The Israel National Mine Action Authority, a branch of the Defense Ministry, said the work is expected to finish in December 2019.