Palestinian Officials Use Planning Dispute to Wage Battle Against Israel
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has a new bone of contention in its battle against the so-called “Judaization” of Judaism’s holiest city. The West Bank-based administration has tried to blow a mundane planning dispute about a proposed cable car into an incident of international proportions.
In 2019, after Jerusalem approved a plan to build a cable car that would connect the capital’s western neighborhoods with the Old City, home to the world’s most famous holy sites, Israeli and Palestinian preservationist NGOs immediately turned to the country’s independent judiciary in an effort to get the “fateful blow to the ancient landscape” canceled.
Indeed, while air trains have long been used as an efficient means of transportation in tourist hot-spots worldwide, such projects have been criticized for their detrimental effect on the scenery (see, for instance, here, here, and here).
In Israel, following a years-long legal battle, the High Court of Justice determined that the government followed the law in authorizing the cable car. In a May 15 ruling, the court said that the final decision should be left to the competent authorities, who intend to move forward with the NIS 200 million ($59 million) undertaking.
Justice Yosef Elron added that “some believe” that the benefit of improving the accessibility of the holy city justifies the “damage” caused by the construction. Furthermore, according to the Jerusalem Development Authority, the aerial gondola will ferry up to 3,000 people per hour at peak times — a capacity similar to that of roughly 160 polluting mini-busses.
The PA made a baseless accusation that the Jewish state’s efforts to ease traffic and make the Old City more accessible for worshipers of all faiths are part of an insidious scheme to “Judaize” Judaism’s holiest city.
In its response to the court ruling, the PA Foreign Ministry also called on the US government to stop Israel’s alleged “distortion” of Jerusalem’s “Palestinian, Islamic and Christian identity.” Earlier, Ramallah had already blasted the project as an “illegal assault on the occupied Palestinian city.”
The PA’s preposterous claims are utterly untethered from reality.
Following the court ruling, news organizations like the Associated Press, Reuters, and CNN dutifully reported both sides of the story, with the latter echoing the Palestinian Authority’s claim that the cable car would somehow “erase their heritage in areas they seek for a future state.”
The irony is striking, given PA chief Mahmoud Abbas’ continuous denial of the 3,000-year-old Jewish connection to Jerusalem (see, for example, here, here, and here), and his incessant campaign to convince international institutions to pass anti-historical resolutions.
Meanwhile, Israel has protected all cultural heritage in the city, and there is nothing preventing tourists from visiting the many Christian or Muslim historical places. Since the Jewish state gained control over eastern Jerusalem in a defensive war in 1967, it has consistently and effectively guaranteed freedom of worship for all religious groups.
The proposed air train would shuttle worshipers and tourists from the First Station entertainment hub to the Old City’s Dung Gate, and vice versa, in a mere four-minute ride. By comparison: the 0.9-mile-journey can currently take more than half an hour by car or public transport.
Accordingly, Arabs in the eastern part of Israel’s capital could benefit greatly from the cable car initiative. On this note, parallels can be drawn with the Jerusalem light rail, a project once heavily opposed by PA officials. After the city railway was completed in 2011, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an article titled, “A Surprising Process of ‘Israelization’ Is Taking Place Among Palestinians in East Jerusalem.” The piece noted that:
…there is the pronounced presence of [eastern Jerusalem] Palestinians in the center of West Jerusalem, in malls, on the light-rail train and in the open shopping area in Mamilla, adjacent to the Old City’s Jaffa Gate… The huge light-rail project, which cuts across the city and greatly facilitates access from the eastern neighborhoods to the city center, is also contributing to the transformation.
As was the case in 2011, the Palestinian Authority now argues that Israel’s plans to build a cable car are “illegal.” By claiming that eastern Jerusalem is occupied under international law, Ramallah reportedly already bullied a French company into withdrawing from the project.
However, even if one considers Jerusalem “occupied territory,” the Jewish state is permitted to advance infrastructure projects in its entire capital. A French court, responding to claims filed by the Palestine Liberation Organization and a pro-Palestinian group, expressed this position in a 2013 ruling:
…it has been considered that the occupying power could and even should restore ordinary public life in the occupied territory and it has been recognized that such measures could relate to all activities generally undertaken by state authorities… [and] that, in this respect, a lighthouse [or] a hospital could be built. It has even been recognized that the establishment of a public transport system formed part of the acts which an occupying power may take to administer the territory… such that the construction of a tramway by the State of Israel would not be prohibited.