Map of Ela Valley Park.
(photo credit: INPA)
A sizable chunk of the Ela Valley in south-central Israel – land not far from the license zone of the recently rejected oil shale project – is set to become a national park in the backyard of Beit Shemesh.
After hearing public opinions on the issue, the objections subcommittee of the Jerusalem District Committee, headed by Dalit Zilber, okayed plans on Wednesday to establish a 550-hectare Ela Valley National Park in the Shfela basin.
Bordered by the future Route 39 on the south and east, Route 38 on the west and future neighborhoods of Ramat Beit Shemesh in the north, the national park will include not only the Ela Valley but also the ridge of hills that line its northern bank, the Interior Ministry said.
The only step left in the approval process is the necessary declaration from the interior minister that the area is officially national park land, Menachem Fried, Israel Nature and Parks Authority manager for the Judean Hills District, told The Jerusalem Post.
Describing the Ela Valley as “a unique space that includes a variety of natural and cultural sites of interest in the country,” the Interior Ministry statement discussed the wealth of “fascinating landscapes,” archeological sites, orchards, Mediterranean woodlands and the rich wildlife population in the region.
The same Jerusalem District Committee that approved the Ela Valley National Park rejected plans in early September for a pilot project to drill for oil shale in the nearby Shfela basin. Jerusalem-based Israel Energy Initiatives had been aiming for years to prove the viability of approximately 40 billion barrels of oil found in the shale rock layer of the basin.
With the pressure of the environmental protection minister and green groups, however, committee members deemed the project too environmentally risky.
The pilot project would have involved in-situ heating of the rock in one location, producing about 500 barrels of oil. IEI’s original preferred location for the pilot project was in the Ela Valley, close to the border of the planned national park.
However, the alternative location that the company eventually settled upon was near the Tarkumiya checkpoint – some 25 kilometers south.
All in all, according to IEI, the overlap between their license zone and the park’s bounds is “very, very minimal.”
A company spokesman therefore told the Post that the establishment of the Ela Valley National Park will have “no influence on their steps going forward.”
“We are continuing to look for a way to develop oil from the shale in the Shfela,” the spokesman said.
As far is the park itself is concerned, the northern portion of the approved area is particularly important on an archeological and historical level due to the presence of Khirbat Qeiyafa, an ancient city and fortress overlooking the Ela Valley, the Interior Ministry said. Excavated recently, the site is of great importance for understanding the biblical period – identified by researchers as Sha’arayim, mentioned in the story of David and Goliath, according to the ministry.
“In its decision, the committee noted that the establishment of Ela Valley National Park will enable the preservation of an area containing a unique landscape and heritage,” the ministry statement added.
The national park is part of an overall vision for the southern district of Beit Shemesh, for which thousands of new housing units were recently approved, the ministry said.
“Qeiyafa is a very special site,” Fried told the Post. “It really has barely changed since the biblical period.”
The excavations were so recent that they occurred after plans for the expansion of Beit Shemesh were already in place. Once the Beit Shemesh neighborhoods are built, there will still be several hundred meters between the residences and the parkland, Fried stressed.
The park will involve minimal development, including just signs, a few pedestrian and cycling paths and maybe a small theater, Fried added.
“We really wanted to preserve the view of the Ela Valley,” he said.