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Jerusalem cable car: a threat to locals and centuries’ old heritage

"These houses stand to be demolished, and lands belonging to both Palestinians and local churches will be confiscated for the benefit of the project."

Jerusalem24 – The Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC) is calling on UNESCO to pressure Israeli authorities to halt a cable car project that would run through occupied East Jerusalem.

The project, spearheaded by the Israeli government and the Jerusalem Development Authority, will see a 1,4km-long cable car route cutting through the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan as well as the Old City of Jerusalem, which has been inscribed on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.

Jerusalem24 talked to Boudur Hassan, advocacy officer and researcher at JLAC, for Vibes. Hassan said that the roots of the “Cable Car project” began taking shape in 2016, with many planning projects going through different Israeli planning departments and committees, including the local and regional committees.

Hassan explained that what sets this project apart is it was designed as a national priority, with the Jerusalem Development Authority overseeing it directly. Its official approval came in 2019 even as the Israeli government was an interim government.

Among the powers that pushed for the approval of the plan was the settlement group of Elad. Elad has for years been trying to take over areas in Wadi Hilweh and Silwan. Hassan argued that Elad would be “among the winners” of the cable car project since it stands to pocket a portion of the profits generated.

The Israeli government claims the area is heavy with traffic and the project will improve transportation and support tourism. However, Hassan asserts that expert opinions suggest that “tourism and transportation are only covers for Israeli dominance over the area.”

A threat to local heritage 

The cable car project passes over dozens of houses of Silwan, particularly in the area of Wadi Hilweh. These houses stand to be demolished, and lands belonging to both Palestinians and local churches will be confiscated for the benefit of the project.

The cable car route will further change the route of the traffic in the Old City of Jerusalem, driving it directly towards Dung Gate (Mughrabi Gate), threatening hundreds of tradesmen and vendors in the old city and especially in Damascus Gate, as the cable car route ends right next to the walls of the old city.

Hassan says, “Since the whole project goes there the whole of the traffic will focus there, damaging the Palestinian commercial interests that focus in Damascus gate. It threatens to demolish dozens of Palestinian homes. On the other hand, it will irreversibly damage the beautiful skyline of Jerusalem. It will destroy a centuries’ old heritage – not to mention the noise, since this is a megaproject that is expected to cost hundreds of millions of shekels.”

The anti-Zionists Jewish sect (Karaite sect), which has lived in Jerusalem for centuries, will be affected too: a Karaite cemetery is slated to be destroyed to make way for the cable car.

The court justified the approval of the plan by saying that they recognized the violation to the dignity of the dead but that such a violation was proportionate, citing the precedent of the destruction of an Islamic cemetery that enabled the construction of the so-called Museum of Tolerance near the neighborhood of Ma’amilla.

Residents and NGOs fight back

On 15 May the Israeli High Court rejected all four petitions submitted by Silwan residents and various NGOs in a bid to stop the construction of the cable car.

JLAC however was not involved in the legal challenge for two reasons, says Hassan. First, JLAC recognized that the likelihood of any success was slim because the Israeli high court tends to not intervene in the decisions taken by different planning committees, treating them instead as planning-related decisions that the court has no jurisdiction over.

She adds that the court usually decides to withhold approval for a plan because of legal or administrative flaws.

In this case, a total of four petitions had been submitted against the cable car project and were all rejected. The petitioners included Silwan residents on the basis that their private property is being violated; the Karaite community; Israeli nonprofit Emek Shaveh, which works on issues of heritage and environment; and Adam Teva V’Din – the Israel Union for Environmental Defense.

The Old City of Jerusalem has been inscribed on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. In addition to this project further endangering the old city, Hassan says that it cannot be divorced from the wider context of Israeli attempts to entrench dominance over the Old City of Jerusalem and altering its identity.

Searching for justice in places other than the Israeli legal system 

“We cannot object in Israeli courts,” says Hassan. “It’s a huge lie and deception, it never granted Palestinians justice. The Israeli High Court is the highest court in Israel – so since the plan was approved by the court, our only options are international pressure.”

JLAC has called on UNESCO to pressure Israel into halting the project, but remains pessimistic about the outcome of such an appeal.

That is why JLAC is appealing directly to international corporations, Hassan explains, as these play a major role in lending legitimacy to Israeli projects – such as the Jerusalem light rail project for which Spanish company CAF won a tender.

“I do believe [we should] pressure these international corporations not to be complicit in Israeli war crimes, because this is ultimately a colonial project and a war crime in occupied Jerusalem,” says Hassan.

This is where the role of documentation on business and human rights comes in: JLAC plans on warning these international corporations against breaching international law, since Israel is likely to depend on these corporations to bring the project to completion.

Mechanisms to deter international corporations

Hassan says that the idea of dealing with international corporations is to use the local jurisdictions of every country these international corporations are registered in and to activate the universal jurisdiction doctrine.

“We have to take advantage of what’s happening with Russia. For example, Britain froze assets of Russian corporations that work in occupied areas in Ukraine or any corporations involved with the military operation of the Russians in Ukraine. This is the most powerful tool in our hands”.

Palestinian civil society has long supported the right of Palestinians to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel. It’s a very important way of pressuring international corporations and legally holding them accountable, according to Hassan.

“We call on the Palestinian ministries and expect the Palestinian Authority to do their job and participate in pressuring these organizations,” says Hassan. “They can raise awareness of this project and the situation in Jerusalem through their embassies. If this goes without notice, it’s a disaster. It’s time to move beyond condemnations, it’s time to protect our Jerusalem and Palestinians and our skies.”.

Complicit international organizations

No information is available regarding the organizations taking part in the cable car project. Israel censors this information to protect these organizations and international corporations. Hassan claims these organizations also avoid publishing their names because they know they’re committing war crimes in occupied territories.

Hassan said that prior to the project’s approval, political representatives from the PA as well as Palestinian NGOs and international organizations were warned against the project in a 2018 meeting. “We’ve said that our expectation from the Israeli legal system is very limited.”

Hassan concludes on a more optimistic note that it is important to get in touch with Palestine solidarity groups as well as lawyers who work in these different jurisdictions, in order to highlight this issue and “avoid this being another light rail project”.

Nadeen Alshaer

Alshaer is a Palestinian journalist, a Birzeit University graduate with a B.A. in TV and Radio Broadcasting Journalism. Alshaer has 6 years of experience in journalism. She currently works as a reporter, editor and presenter/producer for PBC-Palestine TV and Jerusalem24 radio. She’s a UN and Kelley School of Business alumna.

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