A visit to Jerusalem’s Gazelle Valley

The still developing urban nature reserve showcases a combustive history.

gazelle valley 521 (photo credit: Gazelle valley park)
gazelle valley 521
(photo credit: Gazelle valley park)
We are avid attendees of the annual “Houses From Within” festival in Jerusalem, which took place this past weekend. Except that, instead of going inside, we have a habit of getting the scoop on structures and places from the outside.
The festival’s aim is to open up the doors to locations that are usually private. These include architectural masterpieces, like a luxurious apartment near Mahaneh Yehuda renovated by architect Matti Rosenshine, and the Zik family abode in Baka, as well as behind-the-scenes tours of more public facilities, such as the Bible Lands Museum, the Jerusalem Theater and the reimagined Hansen Hospital, which has been transformed from a shelter for lepers (really) to an art and technology design center.
The festival also includes a few hikes and visits to outdoor spaces. The first such visit we paid was a tour of the tunnels being dug outside Jerusalem for the high-speed train that will whisk travelers to Tel Aviv in 30 minutes. Another year, we visited the state-ofthe- art depot for the Jerusalem Light Rail, long before it actually began to run, when the seats were still wrapped in plastic.
This year, we broke with the trains theme and toured the Gazelle Valley, a very exciting open space, sandwiched between the Pat Junction, Givat Mordechai neighborhood and Begin Highway in southern Jerusalem. The 26-hectare (64-acre) valley is slated to become only the second urban nature reserve in the country. (The other one, the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, is also in the capital.) The Gazelle Valley has a combustive history. The land was originally leased for 50 years to two kibbutzim and was filled with orchards. When the lease ran out, the kibbutzim left, but a herd of 30 to 40 wild gazelles still lived in the valley, and neighbors from Givat Mordechai and the Katamonim took a liking to this spot of lessthan- tamed nature in the middle of the city.
But without the kibbutz and its fence to protect them, the gazelles were in trouble. Jackals came in and hunted them. Some wandered (or fled) onto the adjacent Begin Highway, where they didn’t stand a chance against speeding vehicles. An unscrupulous developer began digging up part of the valley for an apartment project without any permission, and his tractors killed a few more. Now, there are only three gazelles left.
That was still enough for the neighbors along with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel to put together a plan to preserve the valley, and remarkably it was adopted by the city of Jerusalem. I’m leaving out a bunch of the struggles to get to that point, which were quite lengthy and fierce at times, pitting real estate interests wanting to turn the area into a massive housing project against environmentalists.
The bottom line is that, following a final court victory last year, the creation of the park is now moving forward with a budget of NIS 18 million.
Part of what was cool about this tour was that we were able to see the site of what I’m sure will become the latest jewel in Jerusalem’s growing livability – before it is actually developed. We live near Hamesila Park (the railway-track park from the German Colony to Malha) as well as the First Station shopping and restaurant complex, and we watched with fascination as both of those were transformed over several years from dumps to fabulous additions to the city’s cultural and urban fabric. The Gazelle Valley has the same potential.
Gazelle Valley park plan The park’s design is quite clever. A fence has been built around the entire location to keep the gazelles safe from predators. (The fence extends half a meter underground to discourage burrowing by bad guys.) Inside the fence, there are two areas – one for human visitors, which will be developed with a promenade, lookout points, a bike path (that will connect to Hamesila Park), picnic benches, playgrounds, a visitors’ center (on the site of the old kibbutz apple-packing facility), water fountains and bathrooms; and a central area just for the gazelles that will be left “wild.” There won’t be a fence here, but visitors will be asked to respect the gazelles’ habitat. Groups will be allowed in with a guide.
The valley collects a large amount of water in the winter; today, it mainly seeps into the ground and heads down to the Dead Sea. The park design includes several small pools to capture that rainwater for the gazelles to drink, plus a large lake. Fruit trees will return, too, in the people part of the park – although, since there’s no fence, the gazelles will be able to graze at night (the entire park will be closed at sunset).
There will be several entrances to the park, including a wooden bridge and observation point coming from Pat Junction. A parking lot for 50-60 vehicles is nearly done at the “main” entrance near the Givat Mordechai fire station.
You may be asking at this point: All this for just three gazelles? That’s not the end of the story, though. The plan is for the park to be repopulated with gazelles from other locations; the size can accommodate up to the original 30 to 40 animals. There is already an “inner” sanctum, enclosed by another fence, where recently arrived baby gazelles can acclimate to their new environment.
But even if there were not a single gazelle, the park would be another welcome flourish to Israel’s consistently most surprising city.