Experimental drilling starts for controversial train route to Jerusalem Old City
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Would speed visitors from Ben Gurion Airport to Western Wall

Experimental drilling starts for controversial train route to Jerusalem Old City

Infrastructure panel initially rejected plan to extend fast rail, approved it under pressure from Transportation Minister Smotrich; involves excavating for 2 miles under Jerusalem

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Experimental drilling for a railway station at Jerusalem's Old City, May 9, 2020. (Emek Shaveh)
Experimental drilling for a railway station at Jerusalem's Old City, May 9, 2020. (Emek Shaveh)

Exploratory drilling has started just outside the Old City for a project to extend the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem fast rail to the Old City’s Dung Gate — the main entrance to the Western Wall.

If implemented, this would speed tourists from Ben Gurion Airport straight to the holiest site at which Jews can pray.

The idea of extending the railway to the Old City was first mooted by Acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz during his decade-long tenure at the Transportation Ministry, which ended in 2019.

In December 2017, he proposed naming a new Old City train station after US President Donald Trump, who earlier that month recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and vowed to move the US embassy to the city, a pledge he followed through on in May of the following year.

But officials have always made clear that the rail project would take years and that a separate cable car is needed immediately to relieve traffic congestion and pollution around the Old City. In November 2019, the housing cabinet gave the controversial cable car final planning approval.

Artists impression of cable cars crossing Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley from a promotional video posted on YouTube

The cable car is due to start at the First Station Cultural Center in southern Jerusalem, pass over the historic Hinnom Valley to Mount Zion, then float along, parallel to the Old City walls, before reaching Dung Gate.

That project’s backers — and there are few outside of government — say it will be a tourist attraction and, despite the fact that the Transportation Ministry has not been involved, will help relieve the existing traffic gridlock, caused mainly by tour buses. Its many critics say it will turn Jerusalem’s most precious historic vistas into a theme park.

Political pressure to extend the railway line

Alongside the planning of the cable car, last June the National Infrastructure Committee met to discuss extending the fast Tel Aviv-Jerusalem rail line. Members approved lengthening it from the Navon railway station, at the capital’s entrance, to the city center, the Khan Theater, and the Malha district, where Jerusalem’s main sporting and retail facilities are located.

The Gihon Spring, today part of the City of David project. (Tal Glick/City of David Facebook)

But it rejected construction of a branch that would lead from the Khan Theater to Dung Gate, for fear that this could damage antiquities, as well as the Gihon Spring, which is located in the village of Silwan, to the south of the Old City, and drains into the Kidron Valley.

However, that same month, ministers voted to make one of the Knesset’s most ideologically driven right-wing members, Bezalel Smotrich, transportation minister. Smotrich accepted the job, though he had expressed a desire to be justice minister in order to “restore the Torah justice system” and direct Israel back to “the days of King David.”

This February, the National Infrastructure Committee reconvened to discuss the extension of the railway to the Old City once again.

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich arrives at a voting station in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim on March 2, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Explanatory notes prepared before the meeting made clear that the issue was back on the agenda because of the Transportation Ministry’s “determined position” that the extension was “essential.”

The committee voted in favor of the extension it had rejected eight months previously.

The project would involve constructing two underground stations and excavating more than two miles (three kilometers) of tunnel in the bedrock beneath downtown Jerusalem and close to the Old City.

Lauding the “historic” decision soon after, Smotrich noted that advancing “Zionist and Jewish ideology” was “no less important” at his ministry than solving the country’s transportation problems.

Experimental drilling for a planned railway stop at Jerusalem’s Old City, May 9, 2020. (Emek Shaveh)

The Israel Antiquities Authority did not oppose the committee’s about-face, saying that it recognized the need to deal with the Old City’s traffic jams and that it was right to consider various options. But it conditioned its future opinion on the results of the experimental drilling, which has now started close to Dung Gate.

In a letter earlier this week to Eitay Mack, a lawyer representing the left-wing Emek Shaveh organization, the IAA confirmed that the drilling is directly connected to the railway plan. It said that it had permitted the works and was supervising them closely.

Emek Shaveh, which has also been at the forefront of the campaign to stop the cable car project, seeks to keep antiquities open to members of all communities and faiths and to stop archaeology being exploited for political ends.

It sees the cable car, as well as the railway plan, as part of an attempt to blur the boundaries between West Jerusalem and predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem in order to ensure that the latter never becomes the capital of a Palestinian state, as the Palestinians envisage.

In a statement, it contended that the works were damaging the city.

“If the price of the cable car is visual harm to the Old City Walls and the Hinnom Valley skyline, a railway will dramatically harm antiquities,” the organization said.

Remarkable remains from the Second Temple period on have been excavated just over the road from the Dung Gate, at an excavation site known locally as the Givati parking lot.

Excavations at the Givati Parking Lot, part of the City of David project. (Kobi Harati, City of David)

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority opposes the railway extension project, warning not only about possible damage to antiquities, but also noting that according to hydrological experts, such a project could harm, if not totally dry out, the Gihon spring, dear to the three monotheistic religions and a central element in the city’s heritage. Archaeological evidence indicates that the city’s first settlers chose to live in the area because of the spring.

In December 2017, a Transportation Ministry spokesman said that the rail extension project was estimated to cost more than $700 million and, if approved, would take four years to complete — a timescale widely viewed as overly optimistic.

Officials have also considered a light rail option to the Dung Gate to relieve the traffic congestion.

A section of the high speed Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train line on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on September 25, 2018. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The long-awaited Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train began running at full capacity every hour in December, although the line only goes as far as Hagana in southern Tel Aviv and is not slated to reach stations in the center and north of the city until later this year.

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