The battle over the hill

Hebrew University student activists take up the banner to conserve Mitzpe Neftoah, a major city green lung.

Megama Yeruka demonstrates downtown (photo credit: ADI ROTEM)
Megama Yeruka demonstrates downtown
(photo credit: ADI ROTEM)
"The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” the old adage goes.
Facing swelling real-estate prices that threaten to render housing virtually unaffordable for millions of Israeli citizens, the previous government under Benjamin Netanyahu had resolved to intervene with a series of programs and reforms designed to boost the construction of new housing in significant enough numbers to combat the impending crisis.
Among its brainchildren is the National Board for Prioritized Residential Projects (VATMAL), empowered by the Knesset in 2014 to carry out large and expeditious construction plans around the country.
In Jerusalem, residents first felt the heavy hand of the board in late 2015 with the announcement of 1,400 new apartments approved for construction on the present site of the Mitzpe Neftoah hill, overlooking the lush Emek Ha’arazim (Cedar Valley) at the city’s entrance. The news provoked an almost immediate uproar from the Jerusalem Municipality headed by Mayor Nir Barkat, a coalition of environmental groups led by the Jewish National Fund, and local residents of the nearby Ramot neighborhood.
The resounding and nearly unanimous opposition to the project appears to reflect the many feet it stamps on.
The public outcry over the controversial location singled out by VATMAL for construction of the new housing units stems primarily from the immense damage the project is bound to inflict upon one of Jerusalem’s few remaining green havens, in yet another in a long line of blows to the ever-retreating natural landscape of the Jerusalem Hills at the city’s outskirts. Home to hundreds of wild plant species, scores of birds and many indigenous mammals – gazelles, foxes, hyenas and porcupines to name a few – the Mitzpe Neftoah hill stands as the last patch untouched by the surrounding asphalt and concrete that have scarred the face of Emek Ha’arazim over the past decade.
“The full ecological impact of the current building plan is difficult to grasp,” explains Nofar Somer of the Megama Yeruka (Green Course) environmental group.
“Apart from the direct devastation of local wildlife, the razing of Mitzpe Neftoah as well as other local landscape will have many future implications on the quality of water reservoirs and the air in Jerusalem, which these areas help purify naturally.”
Somer and her teammates have been highly proactive in mobilizing public opposition to the contentious construction project. Not so much a centralized NGO as a loose coalition of community-based environmental groups around Israel, Megama Yeruka launched in 1997 and has since become a formidable force both on the municipal level and in the national arena, staunchly lobbying for the defense of the environment wherever it is encroached upon by unbridled and reckless industrialization.
With branches on every major campus around the country, the very backbone of the organization is made up of passionate student volunteers who dedicate their time and energies for the endless fight over a greener Israel.
In the capital, Megama Yeruka boasts three active branches of volunteers, each focused on its chosen areas of concern. Whereas a single team, based in the city center, has devoted itself to the promotion of animal rights and an ecological lifestyle, two independent student cells on the Mount Scopus and Givat Ram campuses of the Hebrew University have recently taken up arms with the announcement of VATMAL to build on Mitzpe Neftoah, resolved to muster enough public pressure to stop the questionable project in its tracks.
Adi Rotem, a prominent member of the Givat Ram branch, describes her team’s efforts to heighten awareness amongst Jerusalemites of the planned construction and its manifold future repercussions on their lives.
“We are determined not to let this issue escape the public’s attention.”
By law, the Mitzpe Neftoah project is now subject to a 50-day period of public review, over the course of which official objections to the project can be filed by private citizens and organized bodies alike to pressure VATMAL to rescind its decision.
To that end, the Givat Ram branch of Megama Yeruka has shown an impressive presence on the streets of Jerusalem over the past week, turning to local residents one by one with the essential facts on the project and feverishly collecting signatures for a mass public petition against it, as the 50-day time frame draws to a close on April 24. An environment- themed Purim party organized by the team together with residents of the Ramot neighborhood, also designed to bring the Mitzpe Neftoah controversy to public attention, created considerable ripples on the social media.
MANY IN the protest movement against the current construction plan have voiced a series of concerns beyond the purely environmental.
“In reality the stated goal of the project, to address the shortage of affordable housing in Jerusalem, will actually be set back by the current plan if it is carried out,” warns Somer.
“Building a new neighborhood detached from the city’s main body means huge sums will have to be spent on laying the infrastructure before a single apartment is even built, hiking the cost to four-fold the level of other solutions, and making these housing units unaffordable to low-income families right from the onset.”
Many in City Hall worry over the impact the construction will have on the social makeup of Jerusalem, in view of past experience with such projects in other cities. Such a neighborhood, once built, is poised to draw a disproportionate number of middle- class families from other parts of town, thereby drying up the city center and weakening its socioeconomic character, which will in turn worsen conditions for less wealthy population segments in the long run.
“In its decision to build on Mitzpe Neftoah [VATMAL] seems to have totally ignored any other consideration in the bigger picture,” Somer laments.
“There are an estimated 2,400 potential housing units in existing areas of the city that can be constructed or renovated annually, a total of 60,000 by 2040. It makes absolutely no sense to build from scratch in the city periphery when there are so many cheaper, more effective and less destructive alternatives within the city itself.”
It appears VATMAL, originally envisioned as an expedient in the face of mounting housing prices and an effective tool to raise the living standard of Israelis across the board, might in many cases defeat its own declared purpose. The red tape that this planning committee is permitted to bypass – at first glance a pure nuisance that merely delays the construction of urgently needed housing – may in fact turn out to be a necessary set of procedures designed to safeguard against rash and careless planning that had not been included in all necessary considerations. The plan to construct on Mitzpe Neftoah may prove to be such a case.
With a long struggle still ahead, the steadfast student activists who are the driving force behind Megama Yeruka and a city-wide opposition that is beginning to coalesce promise to lead a serious fight. With pressures reaching as high up as several Knesset members, hopes still center on the possibility of mobilizing enough public pressure on VATMAL to compel it to scrap the project. But should that contingency fail, the coalition may face a long legal battle over the beautiful hill that thousands of Jerusalemites cherish.
“I hope the public hears our call, and realizes how pressing this cause is. It really falls in our hands, pure and simple,” Rotem concludes in a worried tone.