hanegbi land mines 311.
(photo credit: Simona Or-Munteanu)
Sweating under the glaring sun of the Jordan Valley, members of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee planted a pomegranate tree at Qasr al-Yahud, considered by many to be one of the three holiest sites to Christians. But the committee members were among the few visitors to the site, which is underdeveloped due to the fact that it is surrounded on three sides by an active minefield, one of the many minefields that committee members promised Wednesday to work to clear in the coming years.
Committee Chairman MK Tzachi Hanegbi said that he hoped that the bill to establish an inter-ministerial authority to clear land mines would be brought for its preliminary reading on the Knesset floor before the end of the Knesset’s summer session – set to conclude in another month. Hanegbi noted that “the bill was signed by 73 MKs – and the only law supported by both MK Anastasia Michaeli (Israel Beiteinu) and MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad).”
The two freshman MKs were involved in a physical altercation on the Knesset floor earlier this month during a debate on the Gaza flotilla.
“There is no coalition and no opposition on this subject. We all agree,” said Hanegbi. Hanegbi said that he believed that the universally-supported bill would garner the support of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, and thus officially receive the government’s support en route to legislation.
Hours after Hanegbi’s statements, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i said, “I congratulate Hanegbi’s initiative and I will do everything I can to advance the bill both as deputy defense minister and as member of Knesset. It is possible to clear mines from many sites without harming national security – we need to clean up the field and we will do it.”
“This evening is just the beginning,” Vilna’i said during an evening event held in honor of 11-year-old Daniel Yuval, the boy whose leg was blown off this winter by a land mine in the Golan Heights. “We cannot let bureaucracy interfere. I am enlisted on this topic and I will remain so as long as I am here.”
Data presented to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee indicated that the IDF’s Central Command, under whose authority the holy site is located, had cleared 44,000 mines in the last ten years.
With estimates of the number of mines in Israel ranging from over 250,000 to 1.2 million, military mine clearance could take decades. Survivor Corps, an international anti-land mine organization, said that over 1% of Israel’s total territory is currently taken up by mine fields.
Qasr al-Yehud is one such site. Located northeast of Jericho on the lower stretches of the Jordan River, the Israel Parks Authority has developed an air-conditioned visitors’ center, squeaky-clean public bathrooms, prayer areas and a series of wooden stairs allowing pilgrims easy access directly into the green waters of the lower Jordan River. Survivor Corps co-founder, land mine survivor and Nobel laureate Jerry White said that he believes that the site could become one of Israel’s top Christian tourist attractions.
However, it is situated in a military zone with limited civilian access, partially due to the estimated 3,000 land mines dotting the landscape. Qasr al-Yehud is only one of a number of potential tourist sites, particularly in the Golan Heights, the Galilee and the Arava, whose development is limited by the mortal danger to potential visitors.
White told MKs that he believed that within the next seven months the
Knesset could pass the key legislation, which would pave the way for,
among other things, international funding aid for a holistic project to
clear the over 98 percent of Israel’s mines and unexploded ordinance
determined by security forces to be no longer operationally necessary.
Should the legislation pass, White said, Israel could be virtually mine-free in seven years.
While the MKs listened to White and Roots of Peace Founder and CEO
Heidi Kuhn explain the potential benefit to Israel of clearing the
country’s minefields, Catholic pilgrims’ songs crossed the river from
the Jordanian side, which was cleared of its mines by a royal order
from then-monarch King Hussein.