Gesturing at the tree-dotted mountain slopes visible from the Sataf outlook point on Tuesday morning, nature conservationist Amir Balaban likened the expansive natural barrier to the colossal “Wall” separating the Seven Kingdoms from the wildlings in HBO’s Game of Thrones.
“This is like where the northerners might be spilling into these beautiful areas – this is basically the border, the red line,” said Balaban, urban nature coordinator for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. “We’re doing all we can to prevent spillage into this beautiful area.”
The “spillage” in question refers to 1,800 hectares worth of residential construction planned for the Jerusalem Hills – the portion of the Judean Hills just west of the city’s bounds.
On Tuesday, green groups and other partners launched “The Covenant to Strengthen Jerusalem,” which aims to combat eight different building programs that they say would “devastate” the Jerusalem Hills.
Led by SPNI, the team campaigning against the plans includes Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund, Green Course, Life and Environment, the city of Mevaseret Zion and the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, as well as other planning, social and economic experts.
“There are many building reserves within the city; it is possible to meet residential demands without destroying the mountains and open areas surrounding the city,” the organizations said in a joint statement.
“These programs should be canceled and the city should be strengthened from within.”
The first of the eight plans the environmentalists are combating is the Bat Harim program for Tzur Hadassah – a 1,450-hectare Israel Lands Authority plan. Tzur Hadassah is a small community located about halfway between Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh in the Mateh Yehuda region, just inside the Green Line.
The second plan is that of Har Harat, another ILA project, which encompasses 160 hectares.
In both cases, the environmental organizations argued, the programs have advanced by circumventing typical local and district committee approval processes.
The environmental groups are also fighting against the construction of the Western Ring Road – a highway slated to span 8 km. from Motza to the planned interchange at Nahal Refaim. According to the plan, the road would pass along the eastern slopes of the Har Harat neighborhood, continue on a bridge over Nahal Sorek to the planned neighborhood of Ramat Hadassah, and head through a tunnel under Reches Lavan, an area just west of Jerusalem’s southernmost points.
Bat Harim, Har Harat and the Western Ring Road are the main focal points of the environmental opposition, the groups said. According to the organizations, these programs are being promoted in stark contrast to planning policy, which has called unequivocally for the internal strengthening and development of Jerusalem.
Colossal neighborhoods would replace nature reserves, forests and parks, requiring millions of shekels from state budgets for urban planning, the groups argued.
“The right hand of the government does not know what the left hand is doing,” argued SPNI vice president Nir Papay at the covenant launch event in Ein Kerem, which followed the visit to Sataf.
Portions of the government are advancing expansion construction plans such as these, while others are encouraging nature conservation and protection of open spaces, Papay said.
“The Jerusalem Hills are once again recruiting us to save them,” said Yael Elishar, planning coordinator for SPNI in Jerusalem.
So expansive are the Bat Harim and Har Harat plans that they would respectively bring about 15,000 and 10,000 apartments to the Jerusalem Hills, she explained.
The fourth plan on the environmental groups’ list involves Reches Lavan, where the Construction Ministry has launched building plans in an 83-hectare area. The fifth plan is a 24-hectare ILA expansion of Moshav Ora, located in the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council just northwest of Reches Lavan.
Environmental groups are also objecting to a 31.5-hectare Construction Ministry program near Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem, as well as a 37-hectare ILA program at Mitzpe Naftoah in Jerusalem’s north.
The eighth and final plan is the ILA’s 26-hectare Hamagresa plan, which is a smaller project adjacent to Har Harat.
From economic, social and environmental perspectives, moving forward with the plans could only be harmful to members of the public, the green groups argued, saying that to bring the plans to fruition, urban development funds would be directed outside of Jerusalem at the expense of revitalization programs within the city.
Meanwhile, the apartments in the projects would not contribute to lowering housing prices, as the infrastructure development required for their construction would make the residences themselves expensive, the organizations said.
They added that the plans would interrupt the ecological continuum in the Jerusalem Hills west of the city, which is a habitat for animals, trees and other plants unique to Israel.
As an alternative to these projects, the organizations stressed that planning officials should be prioritizing residential expansion programs within Jerusalem. There is a reserve pool of about 100,000 potential new housing units within the municipality’s bounds, of which at least 60,000 should be realized, they said.
Back at Sataf, Balaban argued that rather than strengthening the country’s capital, the Jerusalem Hills construction projects would all but “dismantle” the city.
“Now the big moment has come,” he said.
Turning once again to Game of Thrones, he added, “We have prepared the dragons. We will do everything to preserve this natural area.”