Sappers finished clearing the seventh and last monastery of landmines this week in the Land of the Monasteries, a religious site near the Jordan River where Christians believe Jesus was baptized.
Nearly all the major sects of Christianity built monasteries at the site, also known as Qasr al-Yahud, on the banks of the Jordan River, 10 kilometers (six miles) east of Jericho. In 1968, after the Six Day War, Israel blocked access to the churches and enfolded the site in the closed military zone along the border with Jordan, fearing terrorists could use the churches as a staging ground for attacks on Israeli settlements. The Jordan River is only a few meters wide at that point.
The Israeli army seeded the area with more than 6,500 landmines and set booby traps inside the church buildings in the late 1960s and ’70s. For decades, the bullet-pocked monasteries stood shuttered, yellow signs warning of landmines flapping in the wind.
This week, the Defense Ministry’s Israel National Mine Action Authority, the Israel Defense Forces, international anti-mining organization HALO Trust, and Israeli supervision 4CI finished clearing the Romanian monastery, the seventh and last monastery to be cleared. There are still thousands of landmines scattered among the Land of the Monasteries that will take sappers another half a year to defuse before the area can begin to be opened to the public.
Sappers saved the Romanian Monastery for last because its location made it difficult to clear the mines. The monastery is located in an area between the Jordan River and the northern branch of the Prat Stream, meaning that the sappers had to first demine and then build an access road to reach the building.
A group of Romanian monks founded the monastery in the 1920s. There are two stone buildings as well as a large farming area where the monks grew food and grapes for making wine. The buildings are mostly intact and ornate frescoes are still visible on the ceiling, with vibrant colors.
In May, sappers detonated 900 landmines at once in the largest controlled explosion at the compound.
In 2011, COGAT — the Defense Ministry unit that liaises with the Palestinians — and the Nature and Parks Authority opened an access road that leads to the baptismal site on the Jordan River. More than 800,000 people visit each year, especially around the holiday of the Epiphany, celebrated on January 18.
In 2016, HALO Trust, a UK-based demining 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 demining 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).
The Israel National Mine Action Authority said the work is expected to finish in January 2020.