High Court demands proof controversial Old City cable car will boost tourism
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High Court demands proof controversial Old City cable car will boost tourism

In move that could spell end of entire project, court says government must provide ‘factual basis’ for claims project will increase visits to city

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

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)
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 what could be the beginning of the end for a highly controversial plan to string a cable car between West Jerusalem and the Old City, the High Court of Justice on Sunday ordered the government and other involved bodies to detail the “factual basis” on which they have claimed that the project will boost tourism.

The cable car, an idea pushed by the Tourism Ministry, 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, the closest entrance to the Western Wall.

That project’s backers — and there are few outside of state institutions — say it will be a tourist attraction and, despite the fact that the Transportation Ministry has not been involved, will help relieve traffic gridlock caused mainly by tour buses.

The project has been approved by all the relevant institutions and the government.

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)

Earlier this month, opponents submitted an appeal against the project to the High Court.

Sunday’s court response touches on what could turn out to be the Achilles heel of the entire initiative: the government’s decision to have the project dealt with by the National Infrastructure Committee — a fast-track body within the Finance Ministry — rather than the usual planning hierarchy, which must allow for public objections at each stage of consideration. The NIC was set up to handle major infrastructure projects such as gas and railway lines that cross local authority boundaries.

In 2016, the government amended planning and building law to add “tourist infrastructure” projects to the definition of “national infrastructure” projects that can be dealt with by the National Infrastructure Committee, and specifically named tourism transportation systems.

The planned cable car to Jerusalem’s Old City, as seen in a screenshot from a video by the NGO Emek Shaveh.

This paved the way for the ostensibly local initiative to be whisked off to the NIC after just one presentation before the Jerusalem planning committee.

The High Court now wants the government and all the other bodies involved in approving the project to detail the “factual basis” on which the cable car meets the wording of the planning law — whether it really will “serve as a tourist attraction,” and “make a real contribution to tourism in the area.”

If the court rejects the factual basis, which must be submitted by September 6, then the National Infrastructure Committee will have exceeded its authority to discuss the project and subsequently to recommend it to the government. The entire case for the cable car could start to unravel.

Eli Ben Ari, the lawyer representing one of four plaintiffs, environmental advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din, told The Times of Israel: “I don’t see how they can justify this from a tourist point of view.”

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 other petitioners were the World Karaite Movement and a group of residents from the Palestinian village of Silwan — the cable car is planned to pass over Silwan and a Karaite cemetery — and Emek Shaveh, which has led the campaign against the cable car. Emek Shaveh seeks to keep antiquities open to members of all communities and faiths and to stop archaeology being exploited for political ends.

The plan’s many critics say that the cable car will turn Jerusalem’s most precious historic vistas into a theme park. An analysis of traffic data, released last week, also appears to undermine the Old City congestion claim and suggests that an increase in shuttles would be a better, faster, and far cheaper way of ferrying tourists from southern Jerusalem to the Dung Gate.

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