The Defense Ministry began work Tuesday on a year long project to clear some 3,000 mines, booby traps and unexploded ordinances from the Qaser al-Yahud baptism site in the Jordan Valley, the Ministry said in a statement.
The National Mine Action Authority (INMAA), a department of the ministry, said the project would be undertaken jointly with the HALO Trust, a UK-based mine clearing NGO.
Located some 10 kilometers east of the city of Jericho, on the western bank of the River Jordan, Qaser al-Yahud is of the Christian world’s holiest sites along with the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. According to Christian tradition, the site is where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.
Qasr al-Yahud, which translates “The Castle of the Jews” is believed by some to be where the Jewish people crossed into Israel for the first time after leaving Egypt, although archaeologists say conclusively that this is not historically correct, as well as the site of Elijah’s ascent into heaven in a “chariot of fire.”
The project covers an area of some 1,000 dunams (247 acres) of land requiring mine and battle area clearance. According to the Halo Trust, there are an estimated 2,600 mines to be cleared, with an an unknown number of IEDs and unexploded ordnance. The Trust said a combination of manual and mechanical demining, alongside explosive ordnance disposal, in order to make the area safe.
The project will be funded by the Ministry of Defense and Halo Trust, which according to its website has so far raised $990,000 for the project that it estimates will cost some $1.5 million.
INMAA head Colonel (res) Marcel Aviv said: “It is a great privilege to be able make accessible a site that is so significant for people in Israel and around the world and it is a project that we are very proud of.”
Until 1967 Qasr al-Yahud was an active pilgrimage site that is home to Roman Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek, Romanian, Syrian and Russian Orthodox churches, but was closed in 1968 as a result of military skirmishes and the laying of mines following the Six Day War.
In 2000, a path was cleared to allow Pope John Paul II to access to the river and in 2011 a small part of the site was opened to the public for the first time, without the need for military approval.