Mitzpe Neftoah: Biodiversity and beauty in danger

Construction threatens Jerusalem’s only protected woodland hill.

Mitzpe Neftoah (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Mitzpe Neftoah
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Take a walk down from Ramot’s Gan Hakipod playground. The path winds downward, so it’s easy to see how the land unfolds. Springtime almond trees dressed in full pink and white blossom promise a harvest of nuts later in the year. Crimson anemones and yellow wild mustard spring up among wild grasses and herbs. A turtle makes its ponderous way beside the path. Further into the woods, shrubs suddenly part with a rustle and a flock of gazelles appears, speeding away.
In season, a gourmet’s harvest of wild asparagus and mushrooms grows – for those who know how to look. If you’re lucky, you’ll glimpse partridges, or in the evening, fox cubs playing. Olive trees and pines dot the landscape and draw the eyes to buildings standing in a ring over the green knoll and valley.
Mitzpe Neftoah, the last unspoiled hilltop in Jerusalem. On the land there’s a wine press from the First Temple period, as well as millstones, a lime kiln and remains of ancient dwellings. Forest, orchard and scrub land stretch from the heavily built-up Ramot neighborhood to the Arazim valley, with its planned Metropolitan Park, down to Lifta valley. Hiking trails wander throughout this important ecological area so rich in native flora, fauna and Jewish heritage. It shelters the largest herd of gazelles in Jerusalem as well as 500 plant species, many of them rare, 100 bird species and dozens of animal species, including amphibians.
Any city would be proud to show off a green lung like Mitzpe Neftoah. And if the Israel Lands Authority has its way, this living green treasure will be bulldozed over – the trees uprooted, the gazelles and foxes driven out to starve, the mosaic of flowers and herbs overturned into the dirt – to make way for concrete apartment buildings.
The defenders of this besieged hilltop are Ramot Lema’an Hasviva, a group of neighborhood residents. Core member Hilary Herzberger told In Jerusalem that RLS has been actively promoting conservation of the area around Ramot for 20 years. The group became a registered nonprofit organization in 2001.
Around the same time, the National Planning and Building Committee (a branch of the Interior Ministry) and the Israel Lands Authority began promoting a plan to build more than 2,000 housing units on Mitzpe Neftoah.
The ecological survey by the Environmental Protection Ministry for Mitzpe Neftoah, 2002, states: “Execution of the [building] plan will exact a heavy environmental price, and it is therefore preferable not to build on Mitzpe Neftoah. The new neighborhood will cause irreversible damage to the scenic and ecological components of the area, to the interface between the city and its natural environs, and between the Metropolitan Park and the scenic city entrance.”
Chaviva Shefer, another founder of RLS, told In Jerusalem, “Since it’s protected land, they had to change the land use. We fought the change of land use and took the issue to the Supreme Court in 2004.”
Their lawyer, Reuven Yehoshua, even listed the endangered native gazelles as petitioners.
“Eventually we won,” continues Shefer.
“The judgment was given in 2008. That was the first round. The court settled that the way they changed the land use was illegal.”
In 2010, the Interior Ministry again attempted to change land use in order to enable construction. RLS lobbied fiercely and organized demonstrations to contravene this move, and succeeded. In a countermove, the National Planning Committee reduced the protected status of up to 10 percent of all forest land. But the area of land to be denied protected status in Mitzpe Neftoah exceeded the 10% limit, and RLS submitted another petition to the Supreme Court on this basis.
“We managed to cancel it because the Israel Lands Authority and the National Planning Committee didn’t mention that they were extracting the land for building,” adds Shefer.
RLS is supported by local community administrations, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. They count on about 200 dedicated volunteers, including ecologists, archeologists and a professional filmmaker. And it’s not only Jerusalemites who care what happens to Mitzpe Neftoah; people come from Rishon Lezion, Tel Aviv and Beersheba for the nature walks and activities, and to participate in demonstrations against construction there.
“Mitzpe Neftoah is an accessible open space for all of Jerusalem, not just Ramot,” says Shefer. “The proposed Metropolitan Park is great, but it’s not nature.”
For example, Jerusalem schools often take children outside the city to experience nature, when Mitzpe Neftoah is as close as a city bus ride.
Returning to Ramot, Shefer adds, “Ramot is expanding all the time. Two thousand units are being built here right now, with infrastructure projects going on all around. There’s no free place to walk in except for Mitzpe Neftoah.”
RLS already holds environmental awareness events, programs in local schools, nature walks and birdwatching hikes. Now the group proposes an alternative development plan by which Mitzpe Neftoah would be transformed into an educational nature park. The ambitious project calls for a center that would become an outdoor, hands-on ecology laboratory. The building itself would be constructed on “green” lines of water conservation and ecologically sound construction. A network of hiking and bicycle paths would connect the area to the proposed nearby Metropolitan Park. There would be study tours and birdwatching from a hidden station. The old orchards on the hillsides would be restored, a vineyard planted and features added to attract animals and birds.
Leda Meredith, Ramot resident, authority on urban foraging and author of A Forager’s Feast, told In Jerusalem, “There’s something to harvest in Mitzpe Neftoah literally every month of the year. Right now there are medicinal and edible herbs like pennywort and mustard greens. Carob trees are blossoming, so pods will be ready in about a month.
There are still olives on the trees, and it’s full-on mushroom season since rains have started.
“It’s a very healthy ecosystem. I see at least a dozen gazelles every morning; occasionally foxes, as well as many birds.
Mitzpe Neftoah supports plants, birds and animals in a relatively small place. If it gets smaller [through constructions], the gazelle herds would probably start eating plants they don’t normally eat. That hasn’t happened yet, so it looks like things are in balance.
“It’s a very beautiful and very safe place,” Meredith adds. “What’s neat is that from Gan Hakipod, the playground at the top, it’s just a few steps until you’re out in the wild. It’s a friendly wilderness.”
Meredith plans to lead a foraging walk in the Ramot forest in January, donating all the proceeds to the RLS.
It’s illegal to pick the native cyclamens and za’atar herbs that spring from the rocks. Likewise, it’s illegal to shoot the deer that grace the landscape. Why should it be made legal to destroy those living things, and so many more legally protected species that thrive there? Rather, let the residents of Ramot enjoy their one unspoiled natural area. Let Jerusalem breathe. And let the whole country rejoice in the beauty and balance found in Mitzpe Neftoah.
Read about the RLS at (Hebrew) and on Facebook.