Construction of Jerusalem hotel threatens Christian pilgrimage site

Twenty-five years ago, a spring in the Galilee village of Sajur suddenly went dry. It turned out that nearby construction had cracked the underground rock through which the water flowed, diverting it to another spring.

Today, hydrologists, church leaders and Jerusalem residents are warning that a similar fate might befall a much more important spring: Mary’s Well, located in the heart of Jerusalem’s Ein Karem neighborhood.

The well is a pilgrimage site that attracts hundreds of thousands of Christians a year. According to Christian tradition, Jesus’ mother Mary met there with John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth, while both women were pregnant with Christianity’s founders. But a few years ago, plans were approved for a four-story boutique hotel whose construction will require digging into the cliff from which the spring flows.

Two months ago, the Supreme Court accepted an appeal by the plan’s opponents and ordered the regional planning and building committee to reconsider it. When the committee met last week, representatives of both the Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches attended to voice their concerns about the plan, as did Ein Karem residents.

The attorney representing the entrepreneur behind the hotel countered that since their business depends on tourism to the spring, nobody has a greater incentive than they do to ensure that the spring isn’t harmed.

The plan for the hotel was first proposed in 1989 and approved in 2008, despite strong opposition. Three years later, when the entrepreneur — an overseas company called Investments Limited — applied for a building permit, Ein Karem residents discovered that the building was slated to be both wider and taller than the plan approved in 2008.

The residents petitioned the Jerusalem District Court against the change and lost, but on appeal, the Supreme Court ordered the planning and building committee to consider whether the building permit complied with the original plan’s specifications. The plan’s opponents then seized the opportunity to broaden the discussion to the possible harm to the spring.

In an opinion submitted two years ago, Dr. Gavriel Weinberger, head of the Israel Hydrological Service, warned that the construction could definitely endanger the spring. His opinion was written at the request of Jerusalem’s then-deputy mayor, Naomi Tsur. Hydrologist Gabi Shaliv, who was hired by the Ein Karem residents, reached the same conclusion.

The risk is that digging beneath the rock layer through which the spring runs could crack the rock and divert the spring. Recognizing the danger, the National Planning and Building Council nixed an underground floor planned for the hotel.

Shaliv says an error was made in measuring the height of the relevant rock layer, meaning that the current plan calls for digging two meters below the permitted level. Moreover, he argued, the drilling required to anchor the hotel’s support walls in the cliff will shake the rock, which already has natural cracks, and this might cause new cracks that would endanger the spring.

An independent expert commissioned by the regional planning committee, hydrologist Yakov Livshitz, voiced similar fears. “I don’t think any hydrologist would sign off on there being no danger to the spring,” he said.

But opinions submitted to the national planning council by both Weinberger’s predecessor as head of the hydrological service and Israel’s water commissioner state that the hotel can be built without harming the spring and that the spring could be restored, even if it was damaged — a conclusion Shaliv also disputes.

UNESCO’s Israeli chapter recently approved the tentative inclusion of the spring on the World Heritage List. Thus, argued the Ein Karem residents, altering the site could also prevent its inclusion on UNESCO’s list.

Attorney Gad Wiskind, representing Investments Limited, charged that the real reason Ein Karem residents oppose the hotel is fear that it will hurt their local bed-and-breakfast industry. He also insisted that the differences between the building permit application and the original plan were purely technical.

When the national planning council approved the plan, Wiskind added, its permit included instructions for preserving the spring and involving a hydrologist in the building.

"We promised to renovate the spring and strengthen it," he said. "The Ein Karem Residents’ Committee and Ein Karem residents have been neglecting it.”