ON A recent tour of one of Christendom’s holiest sites in Israel, where according to tradition Jesus was baptized, a ghost town of churches and pilgrim hostels stood starkly barren behind fencing with yellow warning signs and barbed wire against the desert landscape along the road down to the Jordan River.
Shattered windows and collapsed roofs remain frozen in time, a testimony to the fierce battles which took place here between Israel and Palestinian gunmen.
Modern day pilgrims have been able to reach the holy site on the river only through this one dirt road leading through the abandoned scene, which once was a thriving place of prayer and pilgrim hospitality.
Long a military zone on the border with Jordan, the area was laid with a slew of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines and improvised explosive devices ‒ otherwise known in non-military terms as booby traps – 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. Following the signing of the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, the site was opened initially to organized groups on a limited basis only on the Epiphany and Easter holidays.
However, in the summer of 2011, it was officially opened to all visitors under the management of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority The site, known officially as Qasr el- Yahud, is also revered by Jews as the place of the crossing of the Israelites through the Jordan River into the Promised Land after having wandered the desert for 40 years.
Jordan completed demining its eastern bank of the river, which also is considered holy, by 1999. Now, Israel has begun a process to help fund the demining of its area with The HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian mine-clearing organization.
Based in England, it was approached by the Israel National Mine Action Authority and has secured approval from a broad coalition of forces, including the Israeli Defense Ministry, the Palestinian Mine Action Committee and the eight churches with property here, to begin removing the land mines and other unexploded ordnance.
“There has been an ongoing dialogue,” says Ronen Shimoni, HALO Trust program manager in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“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.”
The HALO Trust has been working with the Palestinians in the West Bank clearing pre-1967 Jordanian minefields from Jenin down to Hebron since 2014.
GETTING THE agreements was a delicate process, but now the Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek, Romanian, Syrian and Russian Orthodox Churches, as well as the Franciscans representing the Catholic Church have given their blessing to the project, he says.
The project is estimated to cost some 4 million dollars to complete if the anticipated two-year schedule is to be met, according to Shimoni. If all goes according to plan, the project should be finished by 2018, clearing the path for a rebuilding of the site and allowing the churches to return to their properties and refurbish them for pilgrims, once again.
The HALO Trust has just started its 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 1million to 2 million dollars to get the project off the ground, Shimoni says.
The land, which was distributed to the Churches 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 because of the political sensitivity of the area, Shimoni adds.
The Defense Ministry has provided clear location maps of the placement of the land mines so those undertaking the project are better able to understand the scope of the problem, says Michael Heiman, technology and standards manager at the Israel National Mine Action Authority (INMAA). Such information is not always readily available and this gives them an advantage for this project, he says.
Heiman has spent many hours digging through military archives and speaking to former soldiers who served in the area to gather information that could prove useful when they begin the mine removal work.
From his research, Heiman knows there are some 2,600 anti-tank mines and 1,200 anti-personnel mines in the area, but there are no statistics on IEDs, he says. Complicating matters, heavy rains and earthquakes may have moved some of the devices from their original locations, so care must be taken when searching for the mines, he adds.
“Knowing what is waiting for you makes it much easier and you can progress with the plan,” says 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.”
According to a 2012 survey by The HALO Trust, there are 90 identified minefields in the West Bank ‒ 13 laid by the Jordanians from 1948-1967 and 77 by the Israelis after 1967. All of them are under Israeli military control. The INMAA also manages demining projects in the West Bank, funded by the Dutch, New Zealand, British and American governments, in a delicate cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.
According to the Mine Action Review report, there were 69 civilian casualties in the West Bank including 13 deaths in 2014 ‒ 43 percent of them children.
THE PA set up the Palestinian Mine Action Committee (PMAC) in March 2012 to coordinate mine action in the West Bank, but in reality they must work through and with the INMAA and the Israeli Civil Administration.
Israel does not permit demining operations by Palestinians, although three years ago it gave formal approval to The HALO Trust to clear two of the 13 minefields the PMAC had deemed high priority, according to the 2015 Mine Action Review report, which is published by the Norwegian People’s Aid humanitarian organization to gather and analyze mine action data.
“Our main goal in the West Bank is to keep the process moving… and get over all possible obstacles,” says Heiman, who works with a staff of nine. “It is a security issue, it is a community issue. We do the best we can. The number of minefields in the West Bank is not even one percent of all the areas we are talking about.”
Land mines can be found along Israel’s borders, near military installations, as well as near civilian residential and tourist areas, including national parks. Indeed, approximately 92 million square meters of Israeli territory is laden with mine fields, laid out during the country’s various battles in the Golan Heights, Arava Valley, Jordan and Galilee.
In August 2011, Israel was chastised by the international community for planting new anti-personnel mines along the Syrian border in the Golan Heights after a breach of the border by Syrian protesters.
But for those who live or work near them, the land mines can be dangerous, even fatal.
Though Israel insists that the minefields are strictly fenced off with warning signs, sometimes the fencing has not been properly maintained or the mines have been dislodged and are no longer in the marked areas.
For years, there had been talk about land mine removal behind closed doors in the government corridors and some fields, indeed, had been demined by the IDF and private contractors in a piecemeal way – including near Har Adar and Sur Baher near Jerusalem. But, it was only in 2010, when 11-year-old Daniel Yuval lost his leg and his 12-year-old sister Amit was injured by shrapnel while they were out celebrating the first snow in the Golan, that a decision was finally taken to create the INMAA, which was tasked with finally taking on the mission in an organized and methodical way.
Fifteen Israelis were injured in land mine accidents from 1999-2015, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, a Geneva-based civil society group that monitors the removal of land mines and other explosive remnants of war. Exact statistics on victims are not available from the IDF since land mine victims are included in the category of injured by “victims of hostile activities.”
Nevertheless, Heiman says injury from land mines in Israel is relatively low because the minefields generally are “very well fenced and marked” ‒ the Yuval sibling’s injuries not withstanding ‒ and mine awareness and education is very high in the affected areas.
Largely thanks to the determined efforts of Yuval, who joined the Mine-Free Israel campaign as its youth ambassador speaking out for their removal, the Knesset law establishing the joint military-civilian INMAA was passed in March 2011. The INMAA is part of the Defense Ministry and ministry staff members are responsible for planning the mine action.
The creation of the INMAA was lauded by Jerry White, the cofounder of Survivors Corps, a global network for war survivors including military veterans which emerged from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, whi ch he founded and which won the Noble Peace Prize in 1997.
In 1984, the Irish-Catholic White was in Israel as an American exchange student at the Hebrew University, studying Judaism and Hebrew for the year. While on a hike, he and some friends inadvertently crossed into a minefield whose fencing had been neglected and he lost a leg when he stepped on a mine.
The INMAA has a multi-year national action plan from 2014-2017, which Heiman says is “quite unique in the world” under which it ranked the clearance urgency of each minefield. Those located near tourist areas, active hiking trails or areas needing expansion or at high risk of flooding, which can move the mines, are at the top of the list, he says.
THE INMAA works with seven private clearance contractors and four quality assurance and quality control contractors to prepare and complete a project, making both a technical and non-technical survey in preparation for the work, explains Heiman.
Every three years, the plan can be updated through its advisory board of representatives from different sectors including the Tourism Ministry, Education Ministry, regional councils and victim representatives. The plan will continue as is for the next three years, with work conducted in the Golan Heights during the summer, in the Arava in the winter, and in the West Bank all year round.
In addition to the INMAA work, the IDF has an independent mine action program.
And, although Israel provides information for the international reports about land mines in civilian areas, it does not report on mine contamination or areas cleared or released in areas considered essential for Israel’s security.
Mine Action Review has called on Israel to be more transparent, saying without this information the exact extent of mine contamination in Israel cannot be known.
Israel has reported 53.5 sq km of confirmed mined area and an additional 72.5 sq km of suspected mined area, Mine Action Review said in its 2015 report, noting that the combined 126 sq km represents only the areas Israel does not deem essential to its security.
According to data provided to Mine Action Review, Israel has cleared more than 5.1 sq km of land from 2011 to 2014.
Heiman says that, although land-release statistics by other countries may seem more impressive, it is largely because their methods of demining are less precise than the one Israel uses.
Other countries, he says, work in a larger area finding a small number of mines and then declare the whole area “released.” Israel first narrows the suspected contaminated area before beginning the operation, thus being more efficient both in cost and work effort, sometimes finding ten times the number of mines in the smaller area, which is then released.
Although Israel, because of what it maintains are security considerations along its borders, is not a signatory to the 1997 Ottawa Convention on the Prohibition on the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines, the country has been an active participant in international cooperative programs dedicated to the humanitarian issues and goals of the convention.
Israel has also been instrumental in devising innovative methods and tools to help in more efficient demining as well.
The Israeli method is now considered a role model in both quality control and quality assurance, which assures the safety of the field once it is cleared, says Heiman.
Indeed, recently a team from Colombia came to Israel for demining training after a peace treaty was signed between FARC guerrilla fighters and the Colombian government who had been fighting for 50 years. More than 11,000 Colombians have been wounded or killed by landmines and other unexploded ordinance in the past 25 years with 208 victims in 2015 alone, including 27 children and 11 members of indigenous communities.
“We have a level of confidence both during and after clearance because of our quality management plan, which is essentially the need to release land,” Heiman says. “Many people clear land but do not do proper management. If you don’t do that well it won’t work.”
In Israel, as elsewhere in the world, the rate of demining that can be accomplished is dependent on the budget received each year, says Heiman. For the INMAA that is currently 7.1 million dollars (27 million shekels).
“We can’t do a lot with this budget, it is an on average expense of $9 per square meter of demining,” says Heiman. “If we relied only on the budget coming from the government, it would take us 70 years from the time the mine action authority was created to compete the job.”
Most of the land released has been in the Arava and it is now in use for agricultural purposes, and Heiman says there is a sense of satisfaction in seeing the greenhouses going up immediately after the lands are released.
“It is a continuing process,” he says, adding that the Golan Heights with its hiking trails and grazing cattle is also high priority.
For areas along the border such as the Central Arava and Jordan Valley region the move has been a long time coming. The Central Arava Regional Council notes that land clearance along the border area near Jordan has allowed them to absorb 10 new families into the area, where some 700 families live in seven scattered communities The demining work in their area is critical to the region’s development because mines that have shifted as a result of floods make it dangerous to walk in certain areas.
About 10 years before the INMAA was established, mines were found in a field that already had already been released as safe, notes David Elhanyani, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council. But there is more confidence in the work of the INMAA because of the improved technology available and the international standards under which it works.
Some land mines are already visible due to land erosion, he says, noting that mines also have been found distances from the areas where they were buried so there is some urgency to getting the minefields cleared.
“These are dangerous places and I don’t understand the government’s priorities,” says Elhanyani. “I am surprised we are not a top-level priority.”
Work has not yet begun in earnest in his area, he says, and they are waiting to be able to release areas for agricultural use and absorption of new families.
Nevertheless, Elhanyani says he is confident in the security decisions taken by the army regarding the safety of the borders and the removal of land mines.
“Land mines are a symbol of war in a place where we now have a peaceful border,” the Central Arava Regional Council says regarding its border with Jordan. “We look at the removal of land mines in a very positive light. It is important work, but in Israel everything takes time, so this, too, takes time.”
Social activist and hi-tech entrepreneur Dhyan Or, who spearheaded the Mine-Free Israel campaign and was Survivors Corps Israel coordinator, says the INMAA got off to a good start in its first two years but is restricted by the limited budget it receives. Despite its work, he adds, injury statistics have not been reduced, with at least one injury last year resulting from a land mine along the Syrian border that is believed to have rolled in to the area because of land erosion.
“We still have to do better,” says Or.
“There are a lot of fields that still need to be released and a lot of work to be done. The government has to budget for it.”