Wartime Developments in Old City Basin Carry Grave Implications for Palestinian Rights and the Political Future of Jerusalem

December 20th, 2023

 The following alert is jointly issued by Bimkom, Emek Shaveh, Ir Amim and Peace Now

Under the cover of war, the most extreme rightwing government in Israel’s history is exploiting the circumstances to create more facts on the ground in East Jerusalem, while attention of the international community and wider public is diverted to the devastating ramifications of the hostilities. Settlement advancements and demolitions of Palestinian homes have continued unabated, while moves to erode the binational nature and multireligious character of the Old City and its environs have intensified. These measures not only undermine Palestinian rights to their homes and city, but also further subvert any prospects for an agreed and just political resolution on Jerusalem.

As a recent example of this, the Israeli authorities appear to be moving forward with the controversial cable car project, slated to seamlessly link West to East Jerusalem and ultimately disembark in the hub of Elad’s setter operations in Wadi Hilweh, Silwan. In tandem, an unpermitted structure situated between Al Bustan and Wadi Hilweh, which will purportedly serve as a security outpost and archaeological field office, was inaugurated last week at the seeming behest of the Elad settler organization. These developments are taking place against the ongoing settlement of land title (official land registration) process in Wadi Hilweh, which appears to be deliberately designed to finalize ownership rights of settler homes and tourist sites in the neighborhood. As revealed in a recent report, these procedures are being utilized as yet another form of land theft in East Jerusalem to expand settlements and Israeli control over more territory, while increasing the threat of Palestinian displacement.

Expropriation Notices for Cable Car Infrastructure 

On December 9, notices on behalf of the Jerusalem Municipality were affixed around Silwan and its vicinity concerning the expropriation of 12 plots of land, consisting of some 8.7 dunams, along the planned route of the cable car. The plots marked for expropriation are located primarily in the Wadi Hilweh section of Silwan and the Hinnom Valley, which is situated along the southern entrance to the neighborhood.

Expropriation of this land is for the purpose of ״surveying״ areas to determine the most appropriate location for the future construction of the cable car’s support columns. According to the notices, the current expropriation would be temporary for a period of eight years. Upon conclusion of this period, the precise areas determined for placement of the columns would be permanently expropriated, while the expropriation of all unused land would be suspended. Property owners have been given 60 days to file objections.

One of the expropriation notices distributed and hung in Wadi Hilweh on December 9


Based on examination of the material,  the land slated for expropriation appears to be privately-owned open plots composed of gardens, tree groves, and roads. Contrary to what had originally been assumed and subsequently published in some media outlets, the planned expropriation does not appear to include plots with residential buildings. However, there is still significant fear and suspicion among many residents that the expropriations will ultimately include some homes. This is likely due to the fact that some of the survey areas marked in the approved plan are slightly larger and indeed include residential units. Also, according to the approved plan, air rights above all existing homes along the route will be expropriated before the project’s completion. Furthermore, it should be noted that many existing homes are in the immediate vicinity of the plots currently being expropriated and as such, liable to be impacted by the planned construction of the columns in particular and the cable car in general.

These expropriation orders follow a decision by the Jerusalem Local Planning Committee from July 2023, and the plots designated for expropriation correspond to the map published at the time. The expropriations were approved after most of the objection clauses submitted by Bimkom, together with residents of Silwan, were rejected apart from the request to reduce the duration of the temporary expropriation period (now at 8 years).

Against the backdrop of the war, it is clear that the Israeli authorities are bent on moving forward with the cable car project despite the fact that no building permit has been approved nor has any company been contracted to construct it. 

Background on the Jerusalem Cable Car Project (National Infrastructure Plan (NIP) #86)

Plans for the cable car first emerged twelve years ago (2011) and were marketed as a solution to transport and congestion challenges in the vicinity of the Western Wall and Dung Gate. Although advanced by the Ministry of Tourism and Jerusalem Municipality via the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA), it was clear from the outset that the cable car was designed to provide easy access from West Jerusalem to the Elad-operated City of David archaeological-touristic settlement in Wadi Hilweh, Silwan. Thus, this would first and foremost serve the interests of the Elad settler organization.

According to the plan, the cable car will be suspended from 15 massive eight-story-high columns and carried on cables along a 1.4 km route. It will begin at the First Station complex in West Jerusalem, passing over an invisible Green Line and traveling over the Hinnom Valley to Mount Zion. From there, it will glide alongside the Old City walls slightly above the rooftops and close to the windows of Palestinian residences in Silwan. There, it will alight on the roof of the planned Kedem Compound, a 16,000 sqm. visitors’ center slated to be built at the entrance to Silwan (see more below).

In 2017, the government gave preliminary approval for the cable car (gov. decision 2681) and allocated 15 million NIS for its initial planning. A year later, in 2018, the government decided (gov. decision 3791) to allocate a budget of 200 million NIS for its construction. The cable car project drew strong public opposition from the outset.  Seventy Israeli public intellectuals, archaeologists, and architects signed a statement against the plan, and 27 internationally renowned architects sent a letter to the Israeli government calling to halt the project. Both the statement and letter cited that the cable car would cause irreparable damage to Jerusalem’s ancient city skyline and is tantamount to the ”disneyfication” of the Old City Basin, which constitutes a heritage asset for all of humanity. A wide “Coalition for the Preservation of the Historic Basin” including residents, planning organizations, Israel’s main environmental and nature protection agencies, and rights groups led a public campaign against the plan.

When the plan advanced in a highly irregular process through the National Infrastructure Committee (NIC), hundreds of professionals in the field of archaeology, conservation, planning, architecture and human rights, tendered their objections. Such a process significantly limited public scrutiny and professional oversight.  Yet despite the fierce objection, in June 2019, the NIC approved the plan for submission, and the project received final governmental approval in November 2019. Legal petitions, including one submitted by Emek Shaveh, were subsequently filed to the High Court of Justice against the plan’s approval. Three years and multiple court hearings later, the High Court rejected the petitions in May 2022 (Jordan and Palestine protested the decision in a letter to UNESCO’s Director General).

Map of expropriation areas for the Cable Car project. Blue line outlines the route of the cable car, which proceeds from West Jerusalem in the bottom left hand corner and ends in Silwan in East Jerusalem in the upper right-hand corner. Green line outlines plots slated for expropriation.

Map of expropriation areas for the Cable Car project. Blue line outlines the route of the cable car, which proceeds from West Jerusalem in the bottom left hand corner and ends in Silwan in East Jerusalem in the upper right-hand corner. Green line outlines plots slated for expropriation.


All Routes Lead to Kedem Compound
As mentioned above, the final stop of this phase of the cable car project is due to be built atop a seven-story 16,000 sqm visitors’ center called the “Kedem Compound,” which Elad has been advancing for over 15 years. It will be built at the entrance to Silwan, just opposite the Old City Walls and the Dung Gate and directly across from the City of David visitor’s center and archeological park. The state is slated to not only finance, but also construct the Kedem Compound to the tune of 10 million NIS, which will ultimately serve as the center of Elad’s settler operations in Silwan.

The story of the Kedem Compound and the political forces who intervened to advance its approval despite the appeals and fierce objections filed by residents, conservation experts, and rights groups, including Ir Amim and Emek Shaveh, can be found here.

Although excavations are still ongoing at the site, a building permit request for construction of the compound has been filed, but not yet approved. Recently (August 2023), additional documentation was requested by the Local Planning Committee for its approval, and it appears that this information has been submitted. Yet despite the ongoing excavation work, the absence of approved building permits for both the cable car and the compound, and no company to construct the cable car project, the Israeli authorities see it fit to move forward with land expropriations.

Once built, the Kedem Compound will become the nexus linking together a network of underground tunnels with the cable car and a massive visitors’ center. Work on the tunnels, which had begun over 15 years ago, was officially included in a 2018 government plan with a Government Decision (gov. decision 3789) for the excavation and development of the Historic Basin of Jerusalem’s Old City. Otherwise known as the “Shalem Plan,” the plan aims to “highlight and empower the role of Jerusalem as the ancient capital of King David and the modern-day capital of Israel.”

The Shalem plan is now one of the main frameworks for channeling  government funding towards Elad’s archaeological and touristic settlement projects, including the excavation of the “Pilgrims’ Road” – the nickname for the Roman Stepped Street–and ancient drainage tunnel. Both run beneath the entire length of the neighborhood of Wadi Hilweh as noted in previous alerts.  Since 2018, funding for the Shalem plan has totaled 104 million NIS (gov. decisions 1513/2022 and 548/2023), of which some of the budget, will fund the development of the archaeological levels within the planned Kedem Compound.

Small Structure across from Pool of Siloam inaugurated by Police and Elad

In another development in Silwan, on December 13, a new unpermitted structure across from the Pool of Siloam near the al-Bustan neighborhood in Silwan was inaugurated. The apparent “inauguration ceremony” was attended by Israeli police and representatives of the Elad settler group, including founder and director, David Be’eri. The structure, a prefab building, is situated on land purportedly owned at least in part by Elad. According to an inspection conducted last week, there had not been a building permit issued for its construction. This is not surprising given numerous other examples of Elad building unlawful structures without the necessary permits. In contrast, Palestinians who build without permits are invariably subject to demolition. This is yet another example of the acute discrimination in urban planning and building policy and its selective enforcement. In response to a query submitted to the Israel Nature & Parks Authority (INPA), they cited that the structure would serve as both a security outpost for Israeli security forces and an archaeological field office for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). The structure is located a few meters away from the Elad and IAA excavation at the Pool of Siloam, which began exactly a year ago with the eviction of the Sumarin family from an orchard they had been cultivating for a century.


The new security outpost and archeological field office established between Wadi Hilweh and Al Bustan


Settlement of Land Title Procedures in Wadi Hilweh

It should be underscored that against the backdrop of these developments, settlement of land title (SOLT) procedures are being carried out throughout Wadi Hilweh. These land registration procedures will finalize ownership rights of the respective properties and officially record them in the State’s land registry (“Tabu”). Based on data collected over the past five years, SOLT appears to have become a new mechanism to expand and finalize state and settler appropriation of territory across East Jerusalem, while increasing the threat of Palestinian dispossession and displacement.

15 blocs in Wadi Hilweh are currently undergoing SOLT, which include some 95% of settler homes and tourist sites in the area. These blocs appear to have been deliberately drawn to include as many of the settler homes and settler-operated tourist and archaeological sites as possible. Some of these blocs also include Palestinian homes, now at risk of dispossession. While the previous system of settler takeover in Wadi Hilweh, using discriminatory laws and dubious transactions, was piecemeal, SOLT could expedite and magnify these takeovers. It should be noted that two out of the 15 blocs include plots designated for the land expropriations for the cable car project (one in Wadi Hilweh and one in the Hinnom Valley), while another bloc includes the area where the new aforementioned security outpost was established. 

Beyond the humanitarian consequences, the settlement of land title process is a flagrant violation of International Law and has severe geopolitical ramifications. Once this process has been completed, little to no avenues will remain to dispute state or settler ownership of land or to advance Palestinian claims to properties within East Jerusalem.

The yellow shaded areas mark the blocs undergoing SOLT in Wadi Hilweh. The blue dots mark the settler homes and/or tourist/archaeological sites under their management. One of the survey areas slated for expropriation is within plot no. 31798 on the map


The aforementioned developments are all key components in the overall plan to enlist archaeological research and tourism development to transform the Palestinian neighborhoods and historic sites surrounding the Old City into a nationalistically motivated Judeo-centric biblical disneyland. Alongside mass eviction and demolition efforts in other parts of Silwan such as Batan al Hawa and al Bustan, the use of ancient sites and tourism has been part of a coordinated strategy for displacing Palestinians from their homes and lands and erasing their heritage in Jerusalem’s historic core. These trends coalesce in the settlement of land title procedures. Together, they carry the grave potential to determine the end game of the conflict by cementing Israeli control of East Jerusalem and foreclosing the possibility of an agreed and just political resolution on the city.

Therefore, the signatory organizations call upon the international community:

To reaffirm the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem, which is a World Heritage Site in Danger, and its surrounding area to the three monotheistic faiths and for both the Israeli and Palestinian people.

To call on Israel to respect and protect the integrity, authenticity, and distinct multicultural character of the Old City Basin, which has been forged and cultivated over thousands of years.

To demand that the Israeli authorities suspend the expropriation plans, halt the destructive cable car project and stop the SOLT procedure, all of which severely threaten Palestinian rights to their homes, lands, and heritage.