Franciscans petition court over Jerusalem Old City cable car project

Custodians of Catholic sites in the Holy Land argue that city officials broke their promise not to allow the controversial project to pass over cemetery on Mount Zion

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The new Custos of the Catholic Church's properties in the Holy Land Italian Franciscan priest Rev. Francesco Patton, center, stands during a procession in Jerusalem's Old City, Monday, June 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
The new Custos of the Catholic Church's properties in the Holy Land Italian Franciscan priest Rev. Francesco Patton, center, stands during a procession in Jerusalem's Old City, Monday, June 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

A Franciscan order that acts as custodian of Catholic sites in the Holy Land has petitioned the Jerusalem District Court against the construction of a cable car planned to run from the capital’s First Station to the Old City, the latest challenge to the controversial project.

Lawyers representing Custodia Terra Sancta claim that city authorities have broken a promise not to run the cable car over the Franciscan cemetery on Mount Zion. Those buried there include British soldiers and the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved some 1,200 Jews from the Nazis by employing them in his factories.

The petition is due to be heard on September 16.

The Custodia charges that a 2017 protocol of a meeting with a Jerusalem Development Authority official not only proves that the promise was given, but also prevented the Custodia from utilizing its right to oppose the project. (The Jerusalem Development Authority is a joint agency of the government and the Jerusalem Municipality).

Earlier this year, the Custodia discovered that a planning notice had been posted near the cemetery announcing that three dunams (0.75 acres) were to be confiscated for the erection of three cable car pylons.

Eliana Touma, legal adviser to the Custodia, told The Times of Israel that it was discriminatory to confiscate land from the Franciscan cemetery while properties owned by the state that are used for public purposes would be exempt from confiscation.

While owned privately, the Franciscan cemetery was used to bury Catholics and was therefore performing a public purpose, she said.

A string of legal cases

The case is just the latest in a string of petitions brought against the cable car, all of which the project’s backers have won so far.

The Karaite cemetery in Jerusalem, March 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

One of the cases was brought by the tiny Karaite community, whose roughly four-dunam (one-acre) ancient cemetery is located on the slope beneath the neighborhood of Abu Tor, opposite Mount Zion. The community went to court to stop the cable car from passing over the cemetery. According to Karaite religious law, it is forbidden to place anything between a corpse about to be buried and the sky. A cable car passing over would be like a roof.

A High Court judgment following the dismissal of objections to the project by the Karaite community mentioned that the Jerusalem authorities had nixed the possibility of having the cable car pass over the Catholic (Franciscan) cemetery.

Linking East and West Jerusalem

The project, approved by the cabinet in 2017, calls for a 1.4-kilometer (nearly a mile) track running from the First Station shopping and entertainment area in West Jerusalem over a valley mainly populated by Palestinian East Jerusalemites to the Old City’s Dung Gate, near the Western Wall and the City of David archaeological site. There will be a station along the way at Mount Zion.

Architect’s plans for a Jerusalem cable car showing pylons running parallel to the Old City Walls. (Part of plans submitted to the National Planning Committee).

The cable cars will be strung over some 15 pylons, from nine to 26 meters (30 to 85 feet) high and visible from key points overlooking the Hinnom Valley.

The authorities say the cable car will ferry up to 3,000 people per hour in up to 72 10-person cabins.

Architect’s impression of the planned cable car station on Mount Zion. The Dormition Church can be seen to the left. (From plans submitted to the National Planning Council)

The project’s advocates at the Tourism Ministry and Jerusalem Municipality argue that the cable car will attract tourists and relieve congestion around the Old City walls, and is the greenest, least disruptive, and most financially feasible way to transport people from West Jerusalem to the Western Wall, the most venerated site where Jews may pray.

Opponents say that the plan is obtrusive and culturally and politically irresponsible and that rather than solving the traffic problem, it will simply shift it to the area of the First Station.

Are there any bidders?

On Jerusalem Day 2018, the government announced a NIS 200 million (then $56 million) budget for the cable car. It expected the project to be operating by 2021.

An artist’s rendering of a station on the route of the future cable car that will stretch from Jerusalem’s First Station to the Western Wall in the Old City. (Courtesy Jerusalem Development Authority)

In 2020, the Jerusalem Development Authority announced a pre-tender process to assess interest. That process was subsequently canceled.

According to the Haaretz daily newspaper, at least four international companies that originally expressed interest have since withdrawn — three from France (one of which was asked to withdraw by the French government in 2015, Haaretz reported) and the Swiss HISTEC.

Spending millions anyway

No homes or roofs would have to be demolished along the cable car route, a Jerusalem Development Authority official said at a meeting in 2018.

However, according to Sami Ershied, the lawyer representing families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, land confiscation notices issued so far will result in damage to three or four homes.

According to Haaretz, 17 notices have been published announcing the confiscation of a total of 8.7 dunams (2.15 acres) for the construction of pylons.

View of the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, August 26, 2022. (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean)

According to Emek Hashaveh, a left-wing organization that works to prevent the politicization of archaeology in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Jerusalem Development Authority’s tender committee has made 88 decisions related to the cable car since 2013, chosen 47 suppliers without any tender (of which two were apparently canceled) and spent around NIS 35 million ($9.3 million) on aspects of planning. The financial information was taken from the Finance Ministry Account General’s reports on the spending of state funds.

The Jerusalem Development Authority, which is directly responsible for the project, declined to answer questions submitted by The Times of Israel.

A statement said that work on the project was continuing along the entire route in accordance with the High Court judgment, plans that were approved, and the stages of implementation laid down in the plans.

The Tourism Ministry said it was financing the project in accordance with the government’s decision and that the sum was going toward planning and implementation.

Future obstacles

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority, responsible for the national park that hugs the Old City walls, has conditioned its support on the road leading up to the Dung Gate being mainly pedestrianized.

Jerusalem’s Old City is surrounded by a national park. (johannes86, iStock at Getty Images)

Zeev Hacohen, the authority’s planner for the Jerusalem District, said the presence of modern infrastructure in such an ancient place had raised real dilemmas, but that the INPA had decided to conditionally support the project if it rid the area of the buses and pollution that he said made the visitor experience unpleasant.

Jaffa Street in Jerusalem’s city center. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Hacohen cited the example of Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem, which is pedestrianized with the exception of the light rail.

INPA support would depend on the kind of traffic plan the Jerusalem Development Authority presented, he said.

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