UNITED NATIONS — A plan to build a cable car for tourists in Jerusalem’s Old City has largely been a local issue so far. That changed on on Thursday, when Palestinian concerns about the new transit route were raised to the international level at a United Nations debate on the fragile peace process.
Nickolay Mladenov, the UN’s Middle East envoy, cited the cable car — alongside Israeli settlement-building and the blockade of Gaza — as obstacles in a negotiation process between Israelis and Palestinians that the Trump administration aims to reinvigorate at talks in Bahrain next week.
The 1.4-kilometer cable car route, which will take tourists to within walking distance of the historic Western Wall, has stoked fears of Arab neighborhoods becoming ever-more marginalized, Mladenov told the UN Security Council.
“On 3 June, Israel’s National Infrastructure Committee rejected a series of objections against a controversial plan to construct a cable car between West Jerusalem and the Old City and submitted the plan for government approval,” Mladenov said on Thursday.
“This plan has raised concerns among Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Israeli non-governmental organizations that it seeks to deepen Israeli control over the area.”
The $56 million (200 million NIS) scheme is led by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism and the Jerusalem Development Authority and is expected to carry 3,000 passengers per hour on four-and-a-half-minute rides through the Old City.
Under the plan, gondolas carrying as many as 73 passengers would pass above the neighborhood of Abu Tor, the Valley of Hinnom, and end at the Kedem Center for tourists in the Silwan area.
Advocates of the plan say it will reduce the number of tourist buses that currently cram the city’s narrow streets.
Critics say the project would mar the historic landscape of the Old City and increase the Jewish presence in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan at a time that Palestinians feel their livelihoods are under increasing threat.
Worse still, detractors note the involvement of the Elad Foundation, a group that settles Jewish nationalists in some of Jerusalem’s Arab areas. The cable car terminus will be integrated into a future tourist center run by that group.
Last year, Betty Herschman of Ir Amim, an advocacy outfit that promotes equality in the city, told her concerns to the Associated Press.
“The cable car will send oblivious tourists flying over the heads of Palestinians and drop them off in the middle of occupied east Jerusalem, the eye of the storm, the …. center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Herschman.
“This cable car is putting new facts on the ground that undermine any possibility for a peace process.”
The Silwan neighborhood is already tense, said Mladenov. Eleven people had to vacate the area on April 30, as their homes were demolished. Some 50 legal cases about other homes and structures in the area are pending in Israeli courts, he added.
After getting a green light from the infrastructure committee, the cable car plan must be submitted to the government for approval.
Mladenov said that relations between Israelis and Palestinians were worsening as the administration of United States President Donald Trump sought to reinvigorate the peace process at a two-day fundraiser for Palestinians in Bahrain.
The U.S. has billed the June 25-26 meet in the Gulf kingdom as an economic overture to its long-delayed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, which is widely referred to as the “deal of the century” and is spearheaded by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
While details of the peace plan are still sketchy, Palestinians fear it will scrap the two-state solution — the long-standing international formula which envisages an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza co-existing with Israel.
The U.S. plan has been met with broad skepticism, even from Washington’s European allies, who maintain support for an independent Palestinian state. But Trump’s plan is understood to have some support from such regional players as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Mladenov said he was worried by a breakdown in international efforts.
“I remain deeply concerned by the state of our collective efforts and the weakening of the international consensus to achieve an end to the occupation and the realization of a negotiated two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Mladenov said.