Fifty years after the monasteries at the Qasr al Yahud baptism site became an active war zone, the Defense Ministry and British anti-mine organization HALO Trust are finally making progress in clearing the estimated 6,500 landmines and booby traps that line the holy site.
Since work began in the spring, a team of 22 specialized bomb sappers from Georgia (the country) have cleared 1,500 landmines from three of the seven church compounds, officials told The Times of Israel on Sunday.
Marcel Aviv, the head of the Israel National Mine Action Authority, a branch of the Defense Ministry, he hopes they will finish the work in December 2019.
Christians believe that Qasr al-Yahud, located about 10 kilometers (about six miles) east of Jericho, is the spot on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. 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.
For decades, the bullet-pocked church buildings stood shuttered, yellow signs warning of landmines flapping in the wind.
“Israel placed all the mines between 1967 to 1971 because there was a war, but now it’s empty because it’s a border of peace,” Aviv said on Sunday, just a few hundred meters from the Jordanian border.
In 2011, COGAT — the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories — and the Nature and 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 de-mining group that operates in 27 countries and territories around the world, announced it would begin the process of clearing the landmines around Qasr al-Yahud. However, the actual de-mining work was delayed for two years due to funding issues.
HALO Trust has provided around NIS 10 million ($2.6 million), largely funded by donations, while the Israeli government has provided NIS 7.5 million ($2 million).
“This Christmas/holiday season, the HALO Trust has reached a pivotal point in our work to clear the Baptism Site of landmines and other remnants of war,” James Cowan, the CEO of HALO Trust said in a statement, thanking both the Israeli Mine Authority and the Palestinian Mine Action Centre. A number of Palestinian staff are providing logistics and support for the international bomb sappers, who are on five-year contracts, in order to work on a number of different landmine sites in Israel.
HALO Trust has worked in other locations around the West Bank for the past eight years, and said it was able to build bridges with the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, due to their previous efforts in the region.
The negotiations required coordination between seven Christian denominations, the Defense Ministry, the IDF, COGAT, the Nature and Parks Authority, the Palestinian Authority, and other Palestinian and Christian groups.
HALO Trust’s biggest victory was in bringing the seven denominations of Christianity to the same table in order to begin work on the politically and religiously sensitive site.
Currently, bomb sappers from HALO, in cooperation with the Defense Ministry’s Israel National Mine Action Authority, have cleared the Greek Orthodox monastary, the Franciscan chapel and the Ethiopian Monastery of the Trinity. The Syrian Orthodox monastery, Russian chapel, Coptic monastery, and Roman monastery still have yet to be cleared.
The Greek Orthodox monastery is one of the oldest, built around the fourth century. The Ethiopian monastery doubled as a guest house for pilgrims and is one of the largest.
“In 10 to 20 years, we will have all mines in Israel cleared, including Golan Heights and Syrian border,” Aviv said. “It’s our vision that there will be no land mines on the borders of Israel.
According to the Wall Street Journal, there are approximately 90 square kilometers (35 square miles) of land with mines in Israel and the West Bank.
At Qasr al Yahud, bomb sappers were able to utilize some old Israeli military maps denoting the placement of the large antitank mines. But because the area is a flood plain, the annual flooding can shift the location of the mines. Additionally, the area is strewn with unexploded mortars and other detritus of years of fighting.
Sappers first use metal detectors to mark the location of mines outside each church building, and then carefully dig out the mines and bring them to a safe area for a controlled explosion. Because of the historical buildings in the area, they do not explode anything on the site.
This process can take weeks for each compound as sappers go over every millimeter of the courtyard at least three times to make sure nothing has been left behind.
Many of the church courtyards had intricate agricultural irrigation systems that required dismantling. The Franciscans grew grapes and dates for winemaking, and other Church compounds grew their own food. In order to sweep for mines, heavy earthmovers dug through every meter of the courtyards.
After clearing the courtyards, the sappers move to the church buildings, which take a day or two to clear of booby traps.
“The booby traps are often near doors or windows, where they expected people to pass,” explained Moshe Hilman, the National Mines Authority supervisor of the Qasr al Yahud site. He said HALO Trust has exacting safety requirements, meaning workers plan ahead for how they will open every single door, window, and drawer.
The monasteries were abandoned in the middle of daily life, with old winemaking equipment rusting in one corner and a shoe forgotten on a staircase in a hurry, now encrusted in half a century of dust.
The Ethiopian monastery includes a high-ceilinged cathedral, yellow paint still bright underneath decades of bird droppings.
After the site is deemed mine-free, each church will be able to return to their buildings. Day-to-day control of the site will shift from COGAT to the Nature and Parks Authority, which currently manages access to the baptismal site. More than 800,000 visitors came to the baptismal site in 2018, but Aviv, head of the Mines Authority, believes that number will triple once the churches have unfettered access to their buildings.
Every time bomb sappers enter a church building for the first time, they bring a representative of that sect of Christianity to ensure that nothing is stolen or disturbed. Currently, representatives of each church can coordinate a visit with COGAT in order to start planning for the cosmetic renovations of their buildings.
Qasr al Yahud has a large economic importance for the region. Christian tourism is increasing at a steady rate, following general increases in tourism to Israel.
In 2016, Christian tourists accounted 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 the place where Elisha performed miracles.
The landmines are not the only problem at Qasr al Yahud. The water quality at the baptism site, where thousands of people dunk in the water on holidays, has also raised concerns.
According to an Environmental Ministry report from 2014, the fecal coliform count at the Qasr al Yahud site measured in November 2013 was 2,300 per 100 milliliter. The Health Ministry standards for swimming beaches is a maximum of 400 fecal coliform count per 100 milliliter, at which point a beach is closed to the public. This means at one point, the fecal coliform count was almost six times the acceptable amount.
In the past years, the construction of three wastewater plants along the Jordan River has improved water quality. The Nature and Parks Authority continues to measure water quality on a weekly basis, but does not release its findings. A spokesperson stressed earlier this year that the water at the site is safe for pilgrims to enter for baptism.
“This is such a special place to be as a Christian,” said Agneiszka Witek, a pilgrim from Warsaw, Poland, on her first trip to Israel, as she took in the baptismal site on the banks of the Jordan River. Ten meters away, a rope with plastic bouys marks the border with Jordan, and a Jordanian soldier waits, bored, on the Jordanian side, waving to tourists across the border.
“I’m happy for the peace between Israel and Jordan on this river,” Witek added, when she heard about the mine clearing actions. “It’s really important. I believe they can live together on the same river.”