Work starts to clear mines from traditional site of Jesus’s baptism

Christian Orthodox pilgrims march towards the Jordan River from the Greek Orthodox monastery of St John the Baptist before a baptism ceremony at Qasr Al-Yahud as part of the Feast of the Epiphany in the West Bank. The HALO Trust has begun work to clear about 3,000 pieces of ordnance scattered around the holy site. (AFP)
Updated 20 March 2018
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Work starts to clear mines from traditional site of Jesus’s baptism

JERUSALEM: Israeli and international experts have started clearing thousands of wartime land mines 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 baptised 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 AFP.
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 land mines 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.


New Palestinian deaths bring toll from Israel clashes to 40

Updated 53 min 14 sec ago
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New Palestinian deaths bring toll from Israel clashes to 40

GAZA CITY: Two Palestinians wounded in clashes with Israel were pronounced dead Monday, a Gaza official said, bringing the toll from Israeli fire since March 30 to 40.
A spokesman for the Hamas-controlled territory’s health ministry named the latest fatalities as Tahrir Wahba, 18, and Abdullah Shamali, 20.
Wahba, who was deaf, was shot in the head in a clash east of Khan Yunis on April 6, and Shamali died of “bullet wounds to his belly” sustained on Friday, said spokesman Ashraf Al-Qudra.
Most of the 40 Palestinians killed by Israel since the start of “March of Return” protests on March 30 were shot by snipers on the border, while a few others were killed by Israeli artillery or air strikes.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians in the coastal enclave, wedged between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean, have gathered at the border on consecutive Fridays to call for Palestinian refugees to be allowed to return to their former homes now inside Israel.
Some protesters have launched stones or burning tires at Israeli soldiers.
Israeli forces have responded with live ammunition, wounding hundreds in addition to those killed.
The Israeli army says its troops only opened fire in self-defense or to stop protesters attempting to breach the barrier separating the territory from Israel.
More than 440 demonstrators suffered bullet wounds or gas inhalation on Friday, rescuers said.
Israel has drawn harsh criticism from rights groups along with calls for investigations by the United Nations or the European Union.
Israel has for more than a decade imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza, fighting three wars with Hamas since 2008.
Also on Monday, Hamas’s military wing said one of its men died in an explosion.
It said in a statement that Mohammed Al-Maqadma, 55, was killed by an “explosive projectile” fired by an unnamed group which it described as hostile to Hamas.
It did not elaborate further.
The Gaza health ministry said a child was wounded in the same blast, in the northern part of the strip.