Israel has begun a year-long project to clear the Qasr el-Yahud baptismal site, about 40 km. east of Jerusalem, of all explosives and mines remaining from the Six Day War, the Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday.Some one million square meters of land will be cleared of approximately 3,000 anti-personnel mines, antitank mines, and other explosive remnants of war. The project is being carried out by Israel’s National Mine Action Authority under the direction of the Defense Ministry, together with HALO Trust, an international mine-clearance charity.HALO first announced in 2016 that it would participate in the de-mining, which is expected cost an estimated $4 million to complete.
Qasr el-Yahud is believed to be the location of the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. It is regarded as one of Christianity’s holiest sites. It is home to eight church denominations and is a major tourist site, drawing thousands of visitors from across the world who participate in religious rituals there.Because it is contaminated by mines and other explosive devices, the area has been fenced off since the 1970s, restricting access to several churches, chapels, monasteries and their surroundings.“It is a source of much pain that a traditional site of the baptism of Christ is now a site scarred by the debris of war,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the spiritual leader of an estimated 85 million Anglicans worldwide, said in the 2016 statement by HALO. “In making the land safe again, the HALO Trust is bringing a symbol of hope to a region that struggles with deeply-held divisions.”According to the Defense Ministry, private church compounds and open areas will be swept and cleared. Once the clearance is complete, church plots will be returned to their respective denominations and visitors will once again be able to visit.“The de-mining of the baptism site – a place so significant to so many – is such a unique and wonderful opportunity. The cleaning and releasing of these lands, and the ability to return them to their religious guardians, is a project we take great pride in,” said National Mine Action Authority director Marcel Aviv.Thousands of mines were planted in the area by Israel during the first decades of the state in order to thwart invading soldiers and tanks.While the IDF also clears minefields, the Defense Ministry established the National Mine Action Authority in 2011 to clear land mines from areas that are not essential for Israeli security needs. The de-mining rate per year is between 600 and 800 hectares (about 1,500 and 2,000 acres) and is dependent on the budget of the authority, which this year was budgeted NIS 27 million independent of the Defense Ministry budget.While there are some 3,300 hectares of known minefields, there are still some 9,000 hectares suspected of being mined throughout the country, mainly in open fields on the Golan Heights, in the Arava and elsewhere on Israel’s borders.In November, the Defense Ministry began clearing mines from land adjacent to the Karnei Shomron region in the West Bank in order to significantly expand the community. An estimated 2,200 mines are expected to be discovered in some 8 hectares where the de-mining work is under way.Israel also began clearing mines from the Golan Heights, a project that is expected to take three years.