Mine warning sign in the West Bank © Andrea Krogmann (KNA)
Jesus’ baptism site in the Jordan River near Yardenit on the Sea of Galilee © Andrea Krogmann (KNA)
This Whit Monday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Six-Day War. Since then, the baptismal site on the Jordan River is not only a Christian pilgrimage site, but also a mined area. The latter is now set to change.
The photos in the brochure of the demining organization Halo Trust are impressive: Seven monasteries and churches adorn the nearly one million square meter area along the Jordan River. Today’s visitor to the traditional baptismal site of "Kasr al Jahud," however, must make do with a view from a distance: Barriers limit a small accessible part of it.
Much of the rest of the area on the west bank of the river is a restricted military area – and contaminated with thousands of mines from the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel’s war against Egypt, Jordan and Syria had begun 50 years ago, on 5. June 1967, started and lasted until 10. June 1967.
Churches approve project
According to the Halo Trust, the land around the important Christian pilgrimage site could be free of mines in just over a year – as long as the financing is secured. All eight churches with land holdings at the site have given their consent to the project. This alone is a minor sensation given the not always easy handling of common holy sites.
Ronen Shimoni, project manager of the Halo Trust in the West Bank, explains the church support for his project by the unique character of the organization. "The Halo Trust is the only organization that has no interest other than clearing the mines. Once the land is cleared, we will return it to the original owners."Schimoni wants it to be as non-political as possible in this region.
No one knows exactly how many mines are in the area. Estimates go from 2.600 antitank mines out, plus antipersonnel mines, booby traps in buildings, and unexploded ordnance scattered throughout the area.
On the already accessible part of the baptism site, according to the Israeli army, before its opening in 2010, more than 8.000 mines removed.
Large number of mines in the area
Israel regularly clears minefields, Schimoni also confirms. But with the current budget, it would take another 60 years to clear all 70 minefields in the Jordan Rift Valley. According to military figures, there are between 350,000 and 400,000 mines in the 250-kilometer area.000 and 400.000 mines.
At the baptism site this should happen faster thanks to private donations. Schimoni estimates the cost of the project at 3.6 million euros. A large part of the money has already been collected, thanks in part to church donations from all over the world. "We hope to start clearing before the end of 2017," says Schimoni. "Experience shows that missing donations start flowing in as soon as we start creating facts with our work."
The Halo Trust has already scored a major success: The donations include a magnetometer of German manufacture. "By using it instead of six metal detectors, we can cut the original clearance time by 75 percent," says Shimoni. A time saving, which is also clearly reflected in the budget required.
But before the deminers can tackle the explosives in the ground, they have to comb through a political minefield. For even if all parties involved, including the Israeli army, have given their "OK" for the return plan: Questions remain. Unlike Israel, Jordan cleared its minefields on the eastern bank of the Jordan River when it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. Why, it is said behind closed doors by local Christians, should Christians worldwide donate for the clearing of mines that Israel has laid on church property??
Moreover, the field to be cleared is located in the so-called C-area of the West Bank, which means it is under Israeli civilian and military control. How far, critical voices ask, will the Palestinians profit from the cleanup operation??
Schimoni remains committed to the project, calling it a win-win situation: "We have brought all these ies to the table. Once the minefield is cleared, everyone will benefit and concerns will be forgotten."
There are still people who remember the time before 1967. To the others, Halo Trust is trying to show the potential of the "third holiest Christian site. "Already, pilgrimage numbers are on the rise, with 430 in 2016.000 visitors. "The impact on the economy of the Jerusalem region, Jericho, can be calculated."