An operation funded by Israel and private donors is clearing thousands of landmines from the West Bank area around the site of Jesus’ baptism.
A total of 3,000 landmines, along with unexploded ordnances and booby traps left by Palestinian militants were left in the area from the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank, according to The Associated Press. The joint project to remove the landmines is finally underway after years of the project’s organizers having to accommodate and negotiate between the demands of Israeli and Palestinian officials as well as the competing demands of various Christian denominations that own land in the affected area.
“To see a site that is visited by over half a million pilgrims and tourists each year and for them to come in their buses and be so close to land mines is very unusual. We hope that pilgrims and tourists will be able to visit this site and celebrate the baptism of Christ in the way that was intended,” said James Cowan, the head of The HALO Trust that is carrying out the project, according to AP.
The area that pilgrims visit is a stretch of the bank of the Jordan River where, according to Christian scriptures, John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Jesus’ baptism, and thus the site, marked the beginning of his three-year ministry. Pilgrims often come to the site to undergo their own baptisms in the waters of the Jordan.
Israel cleared a path through the mines surrounding the site in 2000 for Pope John Paul II’s visit. Pilgrims used the path for years in coordination with the Israeli military to avoid the mines. Israel improved the situation in 2011 by clearing a road through the minefields, which buses now use to transport hundreds of thousands of yearly pilgrims and visitors. The surrounding, mine-riddled areas still remained off-limits. The $1.15 million de-mining operation that began in early March seeks to remedy this issue.
The painstaking effort to remove the mines began on the property of the Ethiopian church. Experts interviewed Israeli soldiers, used historical records, and surveyed old maps to locate the mines, but even that information left major gaps, as the shifting topsoil of the Jordan River Valley has obfuscated the locations of some of the mines. To counter that, the de-mining experts with HALO have used metal detectors, dogs, bulldozers, and drones to locate and destroy mines that cannot be located using historical records.
Cowan also had to navigate a different kind of minefield to get the job up and running. It took four years of meeting with church leaders including Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, for Cowan to get the denominations of each of the eight churches in the 250-acre area to agree to the project’s terms. On top of that, Cowan also had to get approval from Israeli and Palestinian authorities, which both have competing claims of ownership over the land, though Israel controls it.
The project intends to make the area safe and open to pilgrims and visitors in nearly a year.
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