An amusement park in the southern Gaza Strip recently unveiled a train ride that seeks to simulate a journey from the isolated coastal enclave to Jerusalem’s Old City, home to a number of Islamic holy sites.
The ride, which spans 550 meters and features two elevated tracks, is the newest attraction at the Asdaa City theme park in Khan Younis. It was built on land that formerly belonged to the Ganei Tal settlement, which was evacuated after Israel decided to withdraw from Gaza in 2005.
It took more than two years to construct and was named “The Train of Return to Jerusalem,” according to Wael al-Khalili, the chairman of Asdaa’s board of directors.
“This was the dream of every Palestinian in Gaza and now it has become a reality with the efforts of the Palestinian minds that built this project,” he said in a post on the amusement park’s Facebook page in early January.
While Israel controls Jerusalem and considers it to be a part of its sovereign territory, the Palestinians view it as their capital and a key center of Palestinian culture.
Before ascending to the train tracks, visitors see a large sign with the number 99, resembling the distance in kilometers from Asdaa to Jerusalem.
The train line, which was inaugurated on January 2, brings visitors across a valley to a partial mock-up of Jerusalem’s Old City, including a small building representing the Dome of Rock shrine.
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem —the site of the biblical Jewish temples that houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock — has often been the epicenter of tensions between Israel and the Palestinians as the holiest site in Judaism and third-holiest site in Islam.
Spice, bread and pottery vendors sold their goods to visitors, while others walked through large doors embodying some of the major entrances to the Old City, a video taken by Gaza-based journalist Osama al-Kahlout on January 10 showed.
Mousa al-Riati, a resident of Rafah, was smiling as he explained why he and his family decided to go on the train line.
“We wanted to ride the train today because it is new and in the Gaza Strip for the first time,” he told Kahlout, adding: “We want to [act] as if we are going on a trip to Jerusalem because citizens cannot go to the real Jerusalem.”
Israel places restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza. Israeli officials maintain that the limitations are in place to prevent Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, and other terrorist groups from smuggling weapons into the territory.
In a video posted on social media in early January, one of the conductors of the train line was seen playing a recording of a voice: “We wish you a pleasant trip. Inevitably, we will return.”
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, there are 1.4 million Palestinian refugees living in Gaza; UNRWA includes descendants of refugees in its designation.
Israeli officials contend that the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to lands that are now a part of Israel would wipe out the country’s Jewish character.
Some Palestinian social media users have criticized the train project.
“This is actually part of a profit scheme. Nothing more. People come, pay for tickets and ride,” Khalid Walid, a Palestinian from Gaza, said in a video he posted on YouTube.
Both Walid and the Kan public broadcaster said the cost of a ticket to ride on the train line is NIS 5 ($1.45).
Besides Jerusalem, Asdaa also features several other mock-ups including one of Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, which Jews and Muslims revere as the burial site of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. While Jews refer to the site as the Tomb of Patriarchs, Muslims call it the Ibrahimi Mosque.
It also includes a lodging and pool area called the Tiberias Resort — a reference to the city of Tiberias next to the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel.
Khalili described Asdaa as an amusement park that brings together tourism and Palestinian nationalism.
“Its projects are used for tourism and relaxation as well as instilling national concepts and values through representations of Palestinian history and memory on its property,” he told Kahlout.
Asdaa was established after Hamas took over Gaza.
Khalili declined to be interviewed by The Times of Israel, noting that he does not speak to Israeli news outlets.
In his comments to Kahlout, Khalili contended that Asdaa had to overcome the obstacles related to Israel’s restrictions on the movement of goods to construct the train project, which he said compelled the theme park to turn to “alternatives” to build it.
He did not clarify what the he meant specifically by “alternatives.”
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Defense Ministry body responsible for liaising with the Palestinians, said it could not comment on the train project unless The Times of Israel provided it with evidence that Asdaa had made a request to import materials by way of the Jewish state.
Since shortly after Hamas took over Gaza, Israel has limited the entry of products that it labels “dual use” into the coastal enclave, which it says can be utilized for both civilian and military purposes. In order to import such goods, Palestinians in Gaza are required to receive special permits.