HALO project seeks to restore sacred ground

For 50 years pilgrims have been able to reach the Jordan River site, where according to Christian tradition John the Baptist baptized Jesus, only by walking down a parched dirt road. Behind barbed wire fencing and yellow warning signs on either side of this road, a ghost town of battle-scarred old churches, monasteries and pilgrim hostels belonging to eight different churches, and which in years gone by had served monks and pilgrims in a lively community, are now strictly off limits.

After Israel gained control of the 81 acres of land from Jordan in 1967, the area became a buffer zone between the two countries and also the site of guerilla fighting between Palestine Liberation Organization gunmen and Israeli soldiers, quickly becoming a closed military area.

A slew of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, and improvised explosive devices—otherwise known in non-military terms as a booby trap—were placed in the area by both the Israeli army and PLO gunmen in the late 1960s and ‘70s, when it was used as a launching ground by PLO terrorists crossing over the Jordan River to attack nearby Israeli settlements. Monks continued to live there for a period until it became too dangerous.

Until the summer of 2011, when the baptismal site along the river bank was officially opened under the management of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, it could be visited only on the Epiphany and Easter and then only by organized groups.

The site, known officially as Qaser al-Yahud, is also revered by Jews who believe it was the place of the crossing of the Israelites through the Jordan River into the Promised Land after having wandered the desert for 40 years.

Though there have been talks by the Israeli government since 1992 to launch a land mine removal project here, and attempts by various organizations in contact with the Israel National Mine Action Authority—established only in 2011 under the Israeli Ministry of Defense—to remove the mines, such a prospect has never come as close to actual fruition as it is currently.

Now the HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian mine clearance organization, based in England, has secured approval from a broad coalition of forces, including the Israeli Ministry of Defense, the Israel National Mine Action Authority, the Palestinian Mine Action Center and the eight churches with property here to begin removing the land mines and other unexploded ordnance.

After the mines are removed there are plans to refurbish and rebuild the site to open it up for pilgrims once again.

“There has been an ongoing dialogue,” said Ronen Shimoni, HALO program manager in Israel and the Palestinian territories. HALO has been working with the Palestinians in the West Bank clearing pre-1967 Jordanian mine fields from Jenin down to Hebron since 2014. “We need to have a wide agreement in order to pave the way for clearance of these explosives. Today we have the blessing of all eight main churches.”

Getting the agreements of all was a delicate process, but now all eight churches—including the Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek, Romanian, Syrian and Russian Orthodox, as well as the Franciscans representing the Catholic Church—have given their blessing to the project, he said.

It is estimated that the project will cost some $4 million to complete if the anticipated two-year schedule is to be met, Shimoni added.

Christians from Indonesia pray at Qasr al-Yehud, the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism, on the Jordan River June 27. Debbie Hill

They have just started their fundraising campaign in the United States and Europe, reaching out to church communities and Christian organizations in the hopes that by the end of the year they will have enough to at least begin their mine clearance work. They need $1-2 million to get the project off the ground, he said.

The land, which was distributed to the churches by the British during the British Mandate period, is located in Area C of the West Bank, which is under Israeli civil and military control. However, it was also important to get Palestinian support, noted Shimoni.

Former Franciscan “custos” of the Holy Land Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who strongly supported the project, noted in a letter that in addition to enabling the Franciscans to refurbish their church on the site, the project also has the potential to “encourage cooperation across religious, cultural and political divisions.”

The Israeli Ministry of Defense has provided clear location maps of the placement of the land mines so they are better able to understand the scale of the problem, noted Michael Heiman, West Bank project supervisor of the Israel National Mine Action Authority. Such information is not always readily available and this gives them an advantage for this project, he said. Heiman has spent many hours digging through military archives and speaking to former soldiers who served in the area in order to gather useful information for once they begin the mine removal work.

From his research he knows there are some 2,600 anti-tank mines, some 1,200 anti personnel mines in the area, but currently they do not have statistics on the IEDs, he said. But rains and earthquakes may have moved some of the devices from their original places, so care must be taken when searching for the mines, he added.

“Knowing what is waiting for you makes it much easier and you can progress with the plan,” said Heiman. “Ninety-five percent of the work of mine clearance is spent clearing, looking for mines in areas that don’t really contain mines. That is why this research I am doing now, even if it takes two months, is a lot cheaper that clearing areas and in the end finding nothing.”

Hebrew University research fellow Merav Mack said she believes ecclesiastical leadership was the key to gaining agreement amongst the various churches. In addition, she said, the previous work accomplishments of HALO were also instrumental.

“Within a very short time (HALO) managed to achieve a lot, through excellent communication with the Palestinian Authority, Israel, the army and the heads of churches,” she said.

“Today the political reality is different than before, and both the Israelis and Palestinians extremely respect the churches,” said Shimoni. “That is the reason why everyone has been so supportive and want to get this done. We are seeing a lot of respect and understanding on the Israeli side and the Palestinian side to allow this to happen.”

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.