Israel will soon clear 4,000 landmines at Qasr al-Yahud baptism site

Defense Ministry says de-mining effort on banks of Jordan River, led by international nonprofit HALO Trust, could begin within 6 weeks

Orthodox Christian pilgrims take a dip in the Jordan river as part of a traditional Epiphany baptism ceremony at the site of Qasr el Yahud on January 18, 2018.(Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)
Orthodox Christian pilgrims take a dip in the Jordan river as part of a traditional Epiphany baptism ceremony at the site of Qasr el Yahud on January 18, 2018.(Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

An ancient Christian site abandoned due to landmines may be resurrected now that the Defense Ministry has promised funds to an international organization, after years of delays.

Christians believe that Qasr al-Yahud, located about 10 kilometers east of Jericho, is the spot on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. But there are an estimated 4,000 landmines in the area, which 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.

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 Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories —  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.

An IDF border guard post seen at Qasr el Yahud, near the Jordan River and the Israel-Jordan border, on January 18, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In 2016, HALO Trust, a UK-based de-mining group that operates in 19 places around the world, announced it would begin the process of clearing the landmines around Qasr al-Yahud. However, the actual de-mining work has yet to start. 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.

HALO Trust surveyed the area with the Israel National Mine Action Authority, part of Israel’s Defense Ministry, and estimate 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.

However, the number of players involved and the politically sensitive location has held up negotiations and funding, and work has yet to begin. 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.

Orthodox Christians immerse themselves in the Jordan River at a baptism ceremony at Qasr al-Yahud near the West Bank city of Jericho, March 31, 2010. (AP/Ariel Schalit, File)

A Defense Ministry spokeswoman told The Times of Israel it hopes the de-mining will start in the first quarter of 2018. A spokeswoman for the HALO Trust declined to comment as to a potential start date.

HALO Trust fundraised 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 were built in the 1930s during the British Mandate period.

“The chance to clear this very historic place of the mines is going to have not only implications for the area because it will allow people of faith to return and worship in those churches,” said James Cowan, the CEO of HALO Trust, when the project was first announced in 2016.

“But it will also have wider implications because it means that all three faiths are working together and all seven Christian denominations have been working together. And I think, in an age in which, elsewhere in the world, religious or historical sites are being damaged and pulled down, for humanity to be working together to restore something as huge as this has symbolic implications.”

Israel mined the area along the Jordan River following the 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 Armenian Orthodox church at Qaser al-Yahud, the site on the Jordan River where many Christians believe Jesus was baptized. (YouTube screen capture)

The mines were placed along many parts of the Israeli-Jordanian border, as well as on the Golan Heights.

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.

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% 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 aren’t the only problem. 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.

Moving rivers are hard to measure because they are dynamic, so levels change dramatically from hour to hour. Six months prior, in May, the Environmental Ministry measured just 190 fecal coliform counts per 100 milliliters, which is within the limits. The higher levels in November could have been due to recent rains or any number of factors.

Authorities who monitor the water on a monthly basis said the water was safe for pilgrims to enter for baptism. Mira Edelstein, a researcher with EcoPeace Middle East, an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental organization that monitors the Jordan River, said that the construction of three waste water treatment plants have contributed to cleaner water.

In the past few years wastewater treatment plants have been built in Jericho, Israel’s Jordan Valley Regional Council, and Jordan’s Northern Jordan Valley region.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report

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