Israel Prize winners call on government to cancel Jerusalem Old City cable car

Israel Prize winners call on government to cancel Jerusalem Old City cable car

70 public figures from academia and the arts sign petition, say holy city is ‘not Disneyland and its treasures of landscape and its heritage are not negotiable currency’

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

Public pressure to cancel a controversial project for a cable car to Jerusalem’s Old City intensified Friday with publication of a petition signed by 70 figures from academia, architecture, archaeology and the arts.

The petition – which includes the names of four Israel Prize recipients — calls on the government to find alternative ways to improve transport to the Old City, the current route to which is congested, and polluted, by tour buses and private cars.

It says, “Jerusalem is not Disneyland and its treasures of landscape and its heritage are not negotiable currency.”

On Thursday, the Association of Architects and Town Planners in Israel and the Council for the Preservation of Heritage Sites slammed the plans, which are scheduled to come up for discussion on Sunday by the decision-making council of the Nature and Parks Authority.

The proposed route for the cable car runs through the national park that surrounds the Old City, which gives the council the right to advise, although not to veto the plan.

Petition signatories include two members of that council — Dr. Uzi Dahari, a former deputy CEO of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who represents the institution on the council, and landscape architect Prof. Nurit Lissovsky from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in the northern city of Haifa.

The Israel Prize winners on the list are Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, a researcher of Jerusalem, architect Yaakov Yaar, archaeologist Amihai Mazar and stage artist Hadas Efrat.

Architect impression of the cable car station next to the existing First Station cultural complex, screened at a public meeting in Jerusalem on September 6, 2018

Other names include those of Boaz Kedar — a former chair of the Israel Antiquities Authority board, Moshe Margalith — holder of the UNESCO Chair on the Heritage of the Modern Movement at Tel Aviv University, filmmaker Amos Gitai, founder and former president of the Jerusalem Foundation Ruth Cheshin, author and Prime Minister’s Prize recipient Eli Amir, and the Canadian-Israeli architect Moshe Safdie.

Safdie wrote a blistering letter opposing the project for a public forum on the cable car plan that was held in Jerusalem last month.

The cable car, an initiative of the Tourism Ministry and the Jerusalem Development Authority — the joint body of the city’s municipality and the government — is intended to take visitors from the First Station cultural complex south of the city center to the Old City’s Dung Gate in under five minutes.

Dung Gate, located in the southeast corner of Jerusalem’s Old City, is the closest entrance to the Western Wall and is the main passage for vehicles. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Planned to start operating in 2021, it is set to pass through, but not stop at, a cable car storage depot in the public garden below Ein Rogel Street in the neighborhood of Abu Tor.

From there, it will sail over the Hinnom Valley to a stop at Mount Zion, before continuing over the Palestinian village of Silwan to its final destination — the still-to-be built Kedem Center – a massive, multi-story complex that the right-wing City of David Foundation is planning to build on top of the Givati parking lot, near the Dung Gate.

The foundation is best known for the national archaeological park it runs under the City of David in Silwan, where it is also involved in purchasing properties for Jewish families.

The cable car system is being designed to ferry up to 3,000 people per hour in up to 72 ten-person cabins along a line supported by 15 massive pylons.

Both the Old City and its walls are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Architect’s impression of the planned cable car station at Mount Zion, Jerusalem, screened at a public meeting in Jerusalem on September 6, 2018

Ministers, outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and at least three of his likely successors in next month’s local elections argue that the 1.4-kilometer-long (4,600 foot) track of the cable car – the bulk of which will be located in mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem — will serve as a tourist attraction. More importantly, they say, it is the greenest, least disruptive, and most immediately feasible and affordable solution to getting visitors from West Jerusalem to the traffic-mired Old City and the main entrance to the Western Wall, the most venerated site where Jews are allowed to pray.

But the petition, organized by Emek Shaveh, a left-wing NGO whose goal is to preserve and make ancient sites available to people of all backgrounds and faiths, warns that what it refers to as the “grandiose and dangerous” plan will introduce a “foreign element” into the “historic and sacred” area around the Old City, forever changing the skyline, view and character of the area, harming a place that resounds for people throughout Israel and the world and causing particular damage to the Hinnom Valley – which gave the world the word Gehenna (hell) — which surrounds the Old City from the west and south.

The petition claims that the project will worsen rather than aid public transport in the city.

And it attacks the government for advancing the project in a way that it says will deny the public and the professional community from organizing an open debate about the plan and even opposing it.

The cable car project is not going through the regular planning system of local, district, and national planning committees, each of which allow for public objections.

After just one presentation before the Jerusalem planning committee last year — which included presentation of a video (see below) — the project was whisked away to the National Planning Council, a fast-track body within the Finance Ministry set up to handle major infrastructure projects such as gas and railway lines that cross local authority boundaries.

That the council – and the tourism ministry, led since 2015 by Likud lawmaker Yariv Levin — was able to take on an ostensibly local project such as this was thanks to a little-noticed 2016 government amendment to the planning law that added “tourist infrastructure” projects to the definition of “national infrastructure” ones, and specifically named tourism transportation systems.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin speaks at the 15th annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, on February 12, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On Thursday, the Association of Architects and Town Planners suggested that the cable car project is illegal under planning law, which, it said, does not sanction the building of tourist infrastructure in a national park surrounded by open areas.

Project opponents point to another clause in the government’s amendment to the planning law which appears to exclude schemes that, according to the relevant district master plan, are “surrounded on all sides by land zoned as open space.”

According to architects consulted by The Times of Israel, the Jerusalem District Master Plan clearly shows that 90 percent of the area earmarked for the cable car has been zoned as a national park around the Old City walls.

Emek Shaveh has issued its own video clip about the project.

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