Work began this week to clear thousands of mines and other remnants of war from the Qasr al-Yahud Baptism Site on the Jordan River, the Defense Ministry said in a Tuesday.
The Israel National Mine Action Authority, part of Israel’s Defense Ministry, working together with the international mine-clearing charity HALO Trust, expects to uncover over 3,000 items in the area, the ministry said in a statement.
Christians believe that Qasr al-Yahud, located about 10 kilometers (some 6 miles) east of Jericho, is the spot on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. The area contains seven churches, along with chapels and monasteries, each belonging to a different denomination of Christianity. For decades, these bullet-pocked churches have remained abandoned, as some are booby-trapped.
A survey by HALO and INMAA estimated that some 2,600 anti-tank and 1,200 anti-personnel mines are buried at the 1-square-kilometer (0.4-square-mile) site, along with booby traps and improvised explosive devices.
“Once the clearance is complete and INMAA and HALO officials can assure the site is safe, the church plots will be returned to the respective denominations and visitors will once again be able to visit these holy sites,” the ministry said.
Qasr al-Yahud was a popular 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 staging grounds for attacks on Israeli settlements. The Jordan River is only a few meters wide at that point.
In 2011, COGAT — the Defense Ministry unit that coordinates between Israel and the Palestinians — and the National 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 group that operates in 19 places around the world, announced it would begin the process of clearing the landmines around Qasr al-Yahud. HALO Trust has previously worked in other locations around the West Bank, and said it was able to build bridges with the Israeli and Palestinian leadership due to their previous efforts in the region.
However, the number of players involved and the politically sensitive location held up negotiations and funding. The negotiations required coordination between seven denominations of Christianity, the Defense Ministry, the IDF, COGAT, the National Parks Authority, the Palestinian Authority and other Palestinian and Christian groups.
HALO Trust raised almost $1 million toward the de-mining efforts, estimating the full cost of de-mining the area at around $4 million. The Defense Ministry also contributed funds.
Most of the seven churches and numerous small chapels in Qasr al-Yahud were built in the 1930s, during the British Mandate period.
Israel mined the area along the Jordan River following the 1967 Six Day War in a bid to prevent Jordanian tanks and infantry, as well as Palestinian fedayeen, guerrilla fighters and terrorists, from infiltrating into Israeli-held territory and attacking Israeli settlements.
The mines were placed along many parts of the Israeli-Jordanian border, as well as on the Golan Heights.
The site also has economic importance for the region. Christian tourism is increasing at a steady rate, following general increases in tourism to Israel. Over 1.5 million Christian tourists came to Israel in 2016, accounting for 53 percent of all incoming tourists.
Forty percent of Christian tourists said the purpose of their trip was a pilgrimage. The average Christian tourist stays 9.8 days in Israel and spends at least $1,500, according to statistics from the Tourism Ministry.
The Qasr al-Yahud site is also holy to some Jews. Qasr al-Yahud translates as “The Castle of the Jews,” and some believe was the spot where the Jewish people crossed into Israel for the first time after leaving Egypt. It is also believed to be the site of Elijah’s ascent into heaven in a “chariot of fire,” and a place where Elisha performed miracles.