INPA raises Lifta security to prevent willow theft

Authority determined "to make the best" of disputed nature reserve in days before Succot.

Lifta (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
As part of its ongoing effort to safeguard the increasingly popular nature reserve in the abandoned Arab village of Lifta, Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) will be upping its security there during the days following Yom Kippur and through Succot, in order to prevent holiday willow thievery, an INPA spokesman told The Jerusalem Post during a tour of the area on Sunday morning.
Willows, one the of “Four Species” brought together in a bunch on Succot, are stolen from nature reserves such as Lifta en masse before and during the holiday and sold on the streets to unsuspecting customers, despite a rabbinical ban on blessing stolen plants, the spokesman said. The hope is that with increased security in Lifta and other potentially affected reserves, judges will have harsher sentences for those who are defacing nature and will set an example for others to come, according to the spokesman.
Jlem’s Lifta faces threats from destruction, development
“Once that will happen maybe we’ll see a small change,” he said, noting that currently the punishment can range anywhere from a NIS 730 fine to a visit to court.
The Lifta area is particularly sensitive to the INPA because in the past couple years the group has spearheaded an effort to clean up what was an entirely “neglected” reserve and has invested around half a million shekels in the upkeep of the area.
Arab residents fled the village in 1947 after experiencing violence during the siege. Since then, the abandoned stone homes became a haven for drug dealers and the bathing pools a receptacle for garbage – until the INPA stepped in to clean up the area around a few years ago.
The Israel Lands Administration published a tender to build 212 new luxury apartments in the area in January, but the construction was temporarily frozen after a coalition of activists – former Lifta residents, Rabbis for Human Rights, and Jafra, a Palestinian heritage organization – filed a petition against the construction.
While the INPA was in principle against such building as well, as a government body, the group has resigned itself to the fact that there will be development there, be it a new luxury neighborhood or the national rail, but stresses that the 50-meter-long nature reserve must be protected nonetheless.
“We are a government branch – for us when they decided you will have a neighborhood here, we couldn’t say don’t build here. Our job is to minimize the damage,” the spokesman told the Post, adding that the INPA would advise the government where to build the infrastructure.
“We don’t want a road at all – any road will hurt people, building will hurt people,” he said. “Now we have to make the best of it.”
INPA Jerusalem region manager, Evyatar Cohen, said the change is inevitable.
“We have no choice – Jerusalem needs the train.”
Citing the historical value of Jerusalem’s parks and nature reserves as something that “the mythological mayor” Teddy Kollek first declared as valuable, Cohen, said his office tried to convince the government to invest more money in Lifta’s revival – rather than knocking down the buildings. For example, he suggested creating an historic tourist village, like those that might be found in Greece, he said. But the inevitable response, he continued, was that “Israel doesn’t have money to transform an abandoned village into something like a museum, that shows its value and legacy.”
In the face of probable development, however, even with the plans for luxury housing and accompanying cafes and infrastructure, Cohen stressed the importance of keeping the area clean so the small nature reserve within will be preserved.
And the past two to three years of trying to accomplish this goal has been no easy task, he explained, noting that when his workers first set foot on the grounds, “Lifta was a neglected place” with no road down to the bottom and a garbage can that was sitting there for 40 years, rarely emptied.

Today, however, is a different story, and with the help of volunteers from the student organization Megama Yeruka, workers from nearby Intel and soldiers, the cleaning effort really got underway, according to Chavatzelet Ochayon, who is in charge of community in the Jerusalem region for the INPA. The students alone carried 150 bags of garbage up the steep hill, she said.
Pleased with the results of the ongoing efforts, Ochayon added that on holidays and during vacations, people can no longer find a spot in the popular bathing area, which once was only used by local haredi men as a ritual bath, but now has become a meeting grounds for the general community.
“We are trying our best to maintain this a special place,” Cohen agreed.
Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.