Miriam Berger is a Middle East based journalist with a focus on international news. She conducted research on the Cairo metro for a master's degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University.
Architects, preservationists, and tour guides oppose the Israeli government’s scheme while Palestinian residents say they’ve been entirely marginalized in the process.
Jerusalem’s ancient Old City is known for its narrow and slippery old stone roads that lead to awe inspiring historic and religious sites. It’s also known for headache-inducing traffic as eager tourists and buses crowd the holy places for pictures and prayer.
Consequently, the Israeli government is pushing a plan forward that would reduce foot and bus traffic by building a cable car to transport tourists and pilgrims between some of the most congested areas starting in 2021. But it’s eliciting strong opposition from architects, preservation experts, and tour guides who oppose the scheme’s visual impact, and Palestinian residents who say they’ve been entirely marginalized in the process.
The cable cars would begin at a light rail stop on the west side near the First Station cultural center, then fly by Abu Tor, the historic Hinnoam Valley, and Old City Walls, stop at Mt. Zion, and end atop the Dung Gate (the least-poetically named of Jerusalem’s eight historic gates) in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. The scheme would ferry up to 3,000 people hourly and primarily serve those visiting what Jews refer to as the Western Wall and City of David. By connecting the cable cars to public transportation, Israeli authorities argue, the plan serves as an environmentally friendly alternative to the congested status quo.
But Moshe Safdie, one of Israel’s premier architects, told CityLab that, by his calculations, the scheme would not actually reduce traffic patterns. Instead, he predicts, it will just push the congestion a bit further away while tourists and pilgrims continue to arrive by tour bus. He also described the cable car proposal as unprecedented for such an archaeologically-renowned city. "My main objection, even if it was a magical solution [to traffic], which it is not, is that it would be a terrible visual affront to the old city,” said Safdie. “There are cable cars all over the place, but [they are] not flying over Florence or Cordova, or any other historic city.”
Jerusalem’s Old City and its walls are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Safdie and others are concerned not just for the aesthetics, but also because of the political implications for the contested city where infrastructure often serves larger ideological interests.
Israelis, for example, were largely thrilled and Palestinians distressed after Donald Trump moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May. While the move was a long-standing Israeli demand to recognize its sovereignty to the city, Palestinians objected because they’ve also long slated the east side of the city as their future capital.
Opponents to the cable cars say the project prioritizes politics over sustainability. Under the current plan, the cars would end at an archeological site and a yet-to-be-built tourist center run the City of David Foundation. The organization’s name harks back to the biblical Jewish King David, who is said to have conquered Jerusalem 3,000 years ago. Today, Palestinians call this neighborhood Silwan. Along with archeological digs and tours, however, part of City of David’s aim is to develop the Jewish presence in the Palestinian neighborhood. That includes buying up properties and settling Jews in Silwan, often by means of displacing the current Palestinian occupants.
Sami Harshid, a lawyer representing residents of Silwan, said that at no point had Palestinians ever been consulted about the plan. “They have never been part of the parties that advised the authorities,” he said. “The authorities just ignored their presence while the project is on their land and affects the landscape and skyline of Silwan. Nobody asked their opinion.”
Safdie called the cable car project “a sham… to enhance the facilities created by El’ad [the Hebrew shorthand for the City of David Foundation].”
In response to CityLab’s questions, Vice President of the City of David Foundation, Doron Spielman said, “The City of David welcomes all projects that increase access to the millions of visitors annually—of all faiths and backgrounds—seeking to connect with the historical significance of ancient Jerusalem, including sites throughout the Old City and the City of David.”
Supporters of the project say the cable cars are not the only solution, but one of several in the works.
In a recent press release, the Tourism Ministry (it did not respond to CityLab’s repeated requests for an interview) listed the project’s many benefits: “The cable car will provide transportation and environmental solutions, and it will make the Old City accessible for people with disabilities… On holidays for the three monotheistic religions, between tens and hundreds of thousands of people visit the Old City. Today, vehicle access for non-residents is prohibited in most parts of the Old City and, therefore, the cable car is defined as a project of great importance to tourism in Jerusalem.”
The government announced the $55.2 million budget for the project last May on Israel’s Jerusalem Day—which commemorates when Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan during the 1967 June War. Israel then annexed the east side, a move that much of the international community still does not recognize. Palestinians now make up about a third of the city’s population but most are not citizens; instead, they have a permanent residency and are required to remain living in Jerusalem to keep their residency.
For now, the cable car proposal has wide support within Jerusalem’s municipal government and the Israeli government. It has even being pushed through on a fast track that allows it to bypass some of the usually required committees and councils.
The Director of the Council for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites and the Chairwoman of the Israeli branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) have come out against the proposal and warned it could cause archeological damage.
Israel’s Association of Architects and Town Planners has also slammed the idea and warned it could be illegal for violating Israel’s own developments laws. “There is no precedent in the world in which a historical city has abandoned what is recognized as an area of historic heritage area for the kind of development proposed,” the association wrote in a letter. “Values of landscape and culture that have been preserved for centuries will be violated in an irreversible fashion by crude technical elements: rows of giant pylons, buildings for stations and infrastructure, parking lots and more.”
For Safdie, the process is indicative of how ideological interests for maintaining control have taken center stage at the expense of Jerusalem’s infrastructure. "When I started working in Jerusalem 50 years ago, there was a very high level of public interest and awareness of what's going on,” he said. “This has somehow disappeared."
He attributed this to the "dominance of the more [Israeli] right, nationalistic groups in the municipal government, and generally that means these groups are not as visually sensitive. You go around parts of the Old City and just see havoc."
"Jerusalem has changed,” he continued, “The population has changed, and with it the scrutiny of what's going on has completely changed."