Battle over J'lem's 'Valley of the Gazelle' reaches climax

Local residents, environmental groups and developers will face off in a high-tension committee hearing.

gazelle 88 (photo credit: )
gazelle 88
(photo credit: )
Local residents, environmental groups and developers will face off on Monday in a high-tension committee hearing over the fate of the capital's Emek Hatzva'im, "the Valley of the Gazelle." The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and a local planning committee of city council members are actively advocating for the preservation of the valley as an open space, and for the establishment of a public park in the area. On the other side, kibbutzim Ma'aleh Hahamisha and Kiryat Anavim and private developer Zeharia Kahalany want the area rezoned for commercial and residential use. Emek Hatzva'im, officially known as the Pri Har Valley, is a 227-dunam (22.7-hectare) plot of land located next to the Begin Highway, on the edge of the Givat Mordechai neighborhood, opposite the Patt intersection. It hosts a herd of gazelle, and was previously used to grow cherry and apple trees. In Monday's meeting, the developers will have the opportunity to publicly oppose the establishment of a park. The discussions are to produce a recommendation for the Jerusalem regional planning committee, which is scheduled to meet on July 23. The regional committee, comprised of both political figures and professional city planners, will make the final decision on the approval, rejection or restructuring of the park plan. Amir Balaban, urban wildlife coordinator for SPNI, said Sunday that "the land was leased to certain kibbutzim years ago. That lease ended, but they still claim the land is theirs. Out of fear that the area will turn into a park, they are doing whatever they can to stop that plan from happening." Balaban said the plan would result in the "creation of an open public space for the benefit of the people of Jerusalem," and that Mayor Nir Barkat backed the initiative. The recently drafted master plan for Jerusalem has already designated the site as open park land, Balaban said. The municipality "has been backing the committee on the park the whole way. It [Monday's committee hearing] is mainly to hear out the opposition - it's part of the democratic process," he said. The developers tell a different story. Kahalany said the courts had already "rejected the request to move the kibbutzim out from the valley. This is the situation now, the kibbutzim are the [legal] holders of the valley and I am their representative." He said SPNI had plans for the area, and was using the park plan as a ploy to create space for it own building endeavors. "The only rights they have are to take care of the gazelle. They have nothing to do with this valley. They went to the courts to say that my agricultural plan will destroy the gazelle and the values of nature in the valley, which is a big lie because most of the valley is going to be agriculture, according to their program," Kahalany said. He believes he will win in the end. "So it's a fight over who will have control - I have a court decision, a contract with the kibbutzim; they have nothing," he said. SPNI, which has been involved in the dispute for a number of years. "If they [the regional committee] don't accept [the arguments of] the people who are against the plan, they can take it to the national level. It's a very long process," Balaban said. But SPNI and the local planning committee remain optimistic about establishing a park. "I believe that the [creation of a] community urban wildlife site is inevitable," said Balaban. "The people of Jerusalem have said what they want, and the municipality has backed the process. The area is already used by the public on a regular basis, and it would be very surprising if the people who are opposing the plan succeeded in the long run." Because of the longstanding debate, the situation of the gazelles has deteriorated. No party has official control of the land, and efforts to protect the animals have been put on hold. In recent years, packs of wild dogs and traffic on the Begin Highway have killed off the herd, and only four of the original 25 gazelles remain. If control over the valley is not established soon, the rest of the herd likely faces a similar fate.