Israeli and international experts have started clearing thousands of wartime landmines and explosive devices from one of Christianity’s holiest sites, in the occupied West Bank, the Israeli defense ministry said Tuesday. It said work began this week to clear about 3,000 pieces of ordnance believed to be scattered around the Qasr al-Yahud Greek Orthodox monastery, on the banks of the River Jordan, at the spot where many believe Jesus was baptized by his cousin John.
The mines date from the Six-Day War of 1967 in which Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan. “Of the 3,000, some of them are Israeli, some of them are Jordanian and some of them we’ll only know when we find them,” defense ministry spokeswoman Arielle Hefez told Reporters. Britain-based HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian mine clearing organization, is working with the Israel National Mine Action Authority (INMAA) to clear what the defense ministry described as “roughly one million square meters (10.8 million square feet) of land.”
HALO said on its website that there are an estimated 2,600 anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines at the Qasr al-Yahud site, restricting access for the more than 400,000 pilgrims who visit each year. “It is home to ancient churches and monasteries, which haven’t been safe to visit for nearly 50 years,” it added. It said that according to testimonies of former soldiers, an unknown number of booby traps were also laid. “This makes the clearance of the site a complex task.”
HALO estimated that the clearance work would take two years and cost around $1.5 million. The defense ministry said the site houses churches of eight different denominations. “Once the clearance is complete and INMAA and HALO officials can assure the site is safe, the church plots will be returned to their respective denominations and visitors will once again be able to visit these holy sites.” Another site on the Jordanian side of the river Wadi al-Kharrar, or Bethany Beyond the Jordan is also venerated as the place of Jesus’s baptism.