The clash between historic and modern-day that is Jerusalem’s First Station rose to new heights last month with the opening of an information center introducing the public to HaRakhval, the planned Jerusalem cable-car project.
Within five years, airborne gondolas will carry passengers aloft above the picturesque Hinnom Valley, floating over the Old City walls to the Western Wall. All for the price of your everyday Rak Kav electronic public transport ticket.
The ₪200 million project, approved by the government in May and scheduled to be operational during 2021, will provide aerial access to Jerusalem’s Old City via four stations: A – the First Station, B – HaMefaked Street, C – Mount Zion, and D – Dung Gate/Givati parking lot adjacent to the Western Wall.
The cable car will cover a 1.4-kilometer route at up to 21.6km per hour, making the trip within five minutes, with 41 cars carrying up to 10 passengers per car. An estimated 3,000 persons could be transported per hour in each direction.
As with all things Jerusalem, the project isn’t without controversy. The line passes over the Arab neighborhoods Wadi Hilweh and Silwan, as well as the Armenian and Jewish quarters of the Old City. The final stop will be adjacent to the Kedem Center, itself a controversial project located above archeological excavations and operated by the equally controversial Ir David Foundation – Elad, a non-profit dedicated to the excavation, preservation and development of the biblical City of David and its environs.
Critics have charged variously that the Kedem Center will control the tourist experience to present a narrow national-religious narrative, that the cable car will “Disney-fy” holy sites, and that it will conflict with the aesthetics of the Old City. In addition, it’s unclear whether the cable car will operate on Saturdays — another potential Jerusalem hot potato.
The parties involved — the Jerusalem Development Authority, Jerusalem Municipality, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the Ministry of Tourism (which is mandated to contribute ₪15 million toward the project), and the Ministry of Transport and Road Safety — state that in addition to being an exceptional tourist attraction, the cable car is a quiet, non-polluting transport solution that does not require road expansion or infrastructure relocation, will reduce private vehicle traffic by 30 percent and bus movement by half, will not harm archaeological sites, and will provide optimum access for the 130,000 weekly visitors to the Old City, a number they hope to increase.
This isn’t the first time a cable car has ridden over the Hinnom Valley — which, by the way, is also known as Gehenna (Hell). The valley gained its hellish reputation during the First Temple period as the infamous site of pagan child sacrifice by fire to the Ammonite god Molech. In modern-day Israel, its reputation has been rehabilitated as the location for the Israel Cinematheque.
But during the siege of Jerusalem initiated by the Arab militias immediately after approval of the November 1947 UN partition resolution, a cable car was the only way to get food and supplies to residents within the walled city.
The Hinnom Valley was dangerous territory as Jordanian snipers were positioned on the Old City walls, able to target any movement. Initially, Jews on the western side of the city used a tunnel to smuggle goods and evacuate the wounded but success was limited. (The entrance to the tunnel still can be seen at Mishkenot Sha’ananim leading up to Mount Zion via the Sultan’s Pool traffic intersection.)
It was Uriel Hefetz of the Etzioni engineering brigade who came up with the idea of a cable car connection. On one side was St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital (today Mount Zion Hotel) on Hebron Road, a structure that had been turned into an arms warehouse by the Ottoman Turks during World War I, then damaged by a 1927 earthquake. On the other side was the Bishop Gobat School (today Jerusalem University College), a Protestant institution on Mount Zion outside the Old City walls.
The car moved on a 200-meter cable at a height of up to 50 meters above the ravine, carrying fighters and equipment weighing up to 250 kilos on a risky two-minute journey. Three soldiers on each side were responsible for hand-winding the cable. The operation, code-named “Avshalom Road,” was conducted at night. During daylight hours, the cable was lowered out of sight onto the ground.
The clandestine facility was used for only half a year but remained confidential even after the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 — the consideration being that it might become operational once more should the city be recaptured. Its secret was revealed to the public only in 1972.
In 1987, by invitation of Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, famed high-wire artist Philippe Petit opened the Israel Festival by crossing the Hinnom Valley on a high wire, the cable symbolically linking the Jewish and Arab sections of the city.
The HaRakhval information center at Jerusalem’s First Station provides explanations, illustrations and leaflets explaining the project in Hebrew, Arabic and English, as well as an illustration of the planned route. The center is open on weekdays between 9am and 10pm and on Fridays between 9 and 4.