Nearly half a million tourists annually walk past two fenced-in minefields to visit Qasr al-Yahud, meaning Castle of the Jews in Arabic – the site where Jesus was believed to have been baptised in the River Jordan.
A $4m project launched last year by the de-mining charity Halo Trust is hoping to make the site safer, after the group struck an agreement with Israeli authorities, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and local churches that own plots in Qasr al-Yahud. The deal allows Halo Trust to work on de-mining the site, located several kilometres from Jericho.
But Israel, whose army peppered the site with mines after the 1967 war, is not paying for these de-mining efforts, observers note.
“None of the government is paying at the moment,” Ronen Shimoni, the head of Halo Trust’s operations in the occupied West Bank, told Al Jazeera. “We hope that they will contribute to the Halo Trust, which will allow us to carry on the project.”
Once the mines are cleared and access to the churches is restored, Shimoni said, tourist and pilgrim numbers will surely increase, benefitting the local economy. Although Halo Trust had hoped to begin late last year, less than $80,000 has been raised so far – well short of the $500,000 needed to get the project off the ground.
“This site is closed behind a fence and doesn’t carry a daily threat to the people,” he said. “But the clearance of the site will allow and provide stability in the area for the people of Jericho, for Jerusalem.”
In an emailed response to an Al Jazeera inquiry on the matter, Israel’s defence ministry maintained that it “financially supports every humanitarian mine clearance project across Israel, including the project to release the Baptism Site”. The ministry did not provide further details.
We used to spend the day in Qasr al-Yahud on Epiphany, riding bikes and horses. The river was not a mere trickle like it is nowadays; priests would bless the faithful in small boats in the water.
The Israeli army and the tourism ministry said that they have spent around $3m to renovate the area in the past several years by building parking lots and shaded areas, upgrading the main entrance road and providing electricity.
The PA, however, says that Israel has not paid for any de-mining in the occupied West Bank.
In addition to Qasr al-Yahud, there are 16 minefields in the West Bank, most of which were laid by the Jordanian military in the 1960s to protect strategic positions and prevent Israeli forces from advancing.
Halo Trust has worked with the PA to clear four minefields near Qalqilya, Bethlehem and Hebron, according to Brigadier Juma Abdel Jabbar, who heads the Palestinian Mine Action Centre. The projects were funded by the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and New Zealand, he said.
“Israel laid the mines in Qasr al-Yahud and it is not paying to remove them,” Juma told Al Jazeera.
In 2011, Israel partially cleared a pathway leading to the river amid fears that if it did not, Jordan’s claim to the baptism site would win the Christian world’s blessing. Regardless, the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, in 2015 designated the baptismal area on the eastern bank of the river, known as al-Maghtas, as a World Heritage site.
Still, the Israeli-controlled site across the river remains one of the single largest draws for regional tourism.
Those who remember Qasr al-Yahud before the 1967 war describe it as more than just a holy site. They speak fondly of a picnic destination and a place where local Christian and Muslim families celebrated the Epiphany, the Christian holiday marking Jesus’ baptism by St John in the River Jordan.
“We used to spend the day in Qasr al-Yahud on Epiphany, riding bikes and horses. The river was not a mere trickle like it is nowadays; priests would bless the faithful in small boats in the water,” Hanna Ammar, 85, told Al Jazeera. “My uncle used to rent out feluccas [wooden boats]. It was his favourite time of the year.”
It has now been 50 years since Ammar, or anyone else, has set foot in that part of the site.
Considered Christianity’s third holiest site, Qasr al-Yahud is dotted with seven churches, belonging to the Franciscan, Greek, Coptic, Ethiopian, Romanian, Russian and Syriac Orthodox churches.
The churches, mostly built in the 1930s, have been left to crumble. Surrounded by thorny bushes and more than 3,800 mines, they are riddled with bullet holes, their windows shattered. It is believed that they were also booby-trapped by Israeli forces after 1967.
The area, equivalent to around 138 football pitches, has been strictly off-limits to the public, encircled by barbed wire and yellow warning signs.
“We believe that we have a system of improvised devices still in the ground. In some areas, we believe there are mines still closer to the buildings,” Michael Heiman, the director of technology and knowledge management with the Israeli National Mine Action Authority, which falls under the purview of the defence ministry, told Al Jazeera.
The mines authority and the army shared information with Halo Trust after reviewing maps and footage, and interviewing soldiers who fought along the river in 1967, enabling the charity to plan and budget for the project, according to Halo Trust.
A team of 35 to 40 sappers, mainly from Georgia, will work to clear the site under the agreement with Halo Trust – but until enough funds come in, the project will be stuck in limbo.