Holy City or Theme Park? Israel Plans Zip Line for Ancient Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM — A picturesque ridge in Jerusalem, steeped in ancient history, is a favorite with visitors who come to snap panoramic photographs of the domes and spires of the Old City across a wooded valley below.

Many believe that the ridge is the site of the Hill of Evil Counsel, where, according to Christian tradition, Judas plotted to betray Jesus. In the not-too-distant future, if developers get their way, visitors will be able to glide down from this perch on a zip line into the green valley known as the Peace Forest.

The zip line is one of a number of planned attractions billed as a tourist draw and a way to ease access to sites of historical interest. The developers also envision a cable car, a pedestrian bridge and visitor centers, along with a model farm that has already been built.

But the ridge and the valley beneath it run along the highly delicate seam between predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem and the mostly Jewish western flank of this contested city. They are part of the historical vista around the Old City walls known as the holy basin, a terrain dotted with archaeological ruins and shrines of all three major monotheistic religions.

Critics say the planned projects will turn what is left of the open, rolling landscape around the Old City into a kind of Disneyland and mar the iconic skyline.

Opponents also see the plans as part of a grander political strategy to erase the line between East and West Jerusalem and strengthen Israel’s claim to sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. They say the intent is to emphasize the Jewish history and culture of areas loaded with religious and political sensitivities, and play down their Muslim, Christian or Palestinian character.

The involvement of a private Jewish settler organization has only fueled those concerns.

The Jewish cemetery at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Muslims on the way to pray at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City during a ciltse period in April when Ramadan, Easter and Passover converged.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

“Nobody is saying there is not a lot of Jewish history here,” said Uri Erlich of Emek Shaveh, an Israeli advocacy group that opposes the exploitation of cultural heritage as a political tool in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “But it depends on which story you want to tell.”

The developers insist that the plans — some of which have been in the works for years — will pump life back into long-neglected areas that were difficult to reach, overtaken by drug dealers and prone to vandalism and arson.

But they could also upset the delicate balance in Jerusalem, which is always volatile. The past month has seen a rise in tensions, especially around the Old City.

And most of the projects have been approved in government committees without much public scrutiny, so there has been little discussion about the possible impact.

Christians at a service at the Church of All Nations in East Jerusalem. Critics view the proposed developments as an attempt to emphasize Jewish history at the expense of Muslim, Christian or Palestinian culture.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
The Western Wall, a site holy to Jews in Jerusalem’s Old City. Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Much of the land in question has until now been open green space with little to no development.

In addition to the zip line, the plans include a pedestrian suspension bridge across a preserved green space below the Old City ramparts known as the Hinnom Valley, or Wadi Rababeh in Arabic, the site of ancient sacrifices and burials.

The model farm already sits on the valley floor. The highly contentious cable car is planned to ferry visitors across the valley toward the Old City and the Western Wall, a Jewish holy site.

One of the plans to develop the area known as the holy basin is a suspension bridge that would traverse the Hinnom Valley, known as Wadi Rababeh in Arabic.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
Local Palestinians claim ownership of some of the land that has been cleared and landscaped in the Hinnom Valley.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 war and then annexed it, though most countries still consider it occupied territory.

A private Jewish settler organization, the City of David Foundation, or Elad, its Hebrew acronym, is partnering with local and national government agencies to help develop the attractions. Those agencies are providing much of the financing.

Elad is dedicated to the development of what many experts believe to be the biblical City of David — the original royal city of the Israelite King David 3,000 years ago — and its environs. Its flagship project has been managing the City of David archaeological site in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

More than three decades ago, Elad began acquiring properties around the site, where excavations began more than a century ago, and moving Jewish families into the houses there.

Construction of new Jewish settlement housing in a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
Israeli tourists walking inside the underground tunnels of the City of David archaeological site in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Doron Spielman, the vice president of Elad, said his group worked for the benefit of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem. Its mission, he said, was “to bring tourists, education and archaeology, so someone enters an entire landscape that is biblical and can connect to their historical identity and to their roots, to their DNA.”

Mr. Spielman said the groups opposing the development preferred “to keep this area of Jerusalem in a state of disrepair and neglect, so they can further their narrative that Jews and Arabs can’t prosper together here under Israeli sovereignty.”

By strengthening Israel’s presence in East Jerusalem, the group also hopes to prevent any future division of the city, while Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future state.

The half-mile-long zip line is planned to start from a point on the ridge where Elad acquired a dilapidated old building years ago and where it is now putting up a visitor center. The ride will end near an Elad-run camping and activity site in the expansive Peace Forest.

Elad has built a new visitor center on an ancient ridge and plans to launch the zip line from the site.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
In the Old City. Opponents see the proposed developments as another example of how Israel is seeking to strengthen its claim to sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Some critics have called the projects “touristic settlement,” based on Elad’s involvement and what appears to be its evolving strategy — cementing Israel’s claims to the holy basin by bringing thousands of Israeli and foreign tourists to the area.

“This is not Elad’s usual way of focusing on the historical, religious, ideological and archaeological aspects,” said Aviv Tatarsky, of Ir Amim, an anti-settlement advocacy group that works for an equitable solution for Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem. He said the group was changing tack, trying to appeal to the masses with entertainment to change the character of these areas.

The zip line and cable car could still take years to complete, held up by yasal, bureaucratic or funding issues, with budgets running to the millions of dollars.

Doron Spielman of Elad at a model farm run by the group.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
Elad built a new coffee shop just across from the Old City’s southern wall.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Local Palestinians claim ownership of some of the land now being cleared and landscaped in the Hinnom Valley, which was declared part of the Jerusalem Ramparts national park in 1974. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which has partnered with Elad in remodeling the valley, says the ownership of the disputed land has not been determined.

Shadi Sumarin, a Palestinian living on one of the ridges above the Hinnom Valley, said he had documents dating hundreds of years that prove his family’s ownership of some of the land where the Israelis are now building terraces, footpaths and walls.

“Thieves!” he shouted, confronting Israelis who were clearing the land recently. He urged a Palestinian tractor driver working for them to go home.

Ahmad Awad Sumarin, 47, a distant relative and spokesman for the families who claim the land in Hinnon Valley, said he and his relatives had been harvesting family olive trees there since he was 5. Everything now being created in the valley was fake, he insisted.

“This is not our culture,” he said.

The families are appealing in court to stop changes to the land, which has always been open to visitors. The lawyer representing them, Mohannad Jbara, called the takeover of the land claimed by his clients “delusional.”

Israeli police mediating during an altercation between Palestinians who claim ownership of the land and members of the Nature and Parks Authority and Elad over landscaping.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
Ahmad Awad Sumarin, second left, and Shadi Sumarin, second right, at a recent court hearing with other claimants to the land being landscaped in the Hinnom Valley, or Wadi Rababeh in Arabic.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem who is in charge of the city’s tourism portfolio, described the suspension bridge and the cable car as green, practical solutions for a historic area that has long been traffic-clogged and neglected.

“Tourism is a very significant part of the income of our city,” Ms. Hassan-Nahoum said. “The tourism industry is one of the city’s biggest employers, especially for residents of East Jerusalem.”

Hagit Ofran, of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch monitoring unit, said that in the past Israel felt it had a responsibility to the world to preserve the natural green spaces and multicultural character of the holy basin.

“They are not looking at it that way in recent years,” she said, “but as an Israeli, Jewish area in which the Muslim and Christian sites are like islands.”

View of the Hinnom Valley and Silwan.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

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