Common ground?

A new NGO aims to conserve the environment around Tzur Hadassah and promote tourism.

betar illit 224.88 (photo credit: Michael Green)
betar illit 224.88
(photo credit: Michael Green)
'We're in a very special place here in the Judean Hills; it's unique but not everyone who lives here knows about their environment," says Pazit Schwied, a former Jerusalemite who moved to Tzur Hadassah eight years ago. The stunning location atop the Sansan Ridge, a 20-minute drive southwest of Jerusalem, has attracted many residents owing to the views of its breathtaking landscape. Originally a small agricultural village home to a handful of families, Tzur Hadassah has expanded to 4,200 inhabitants in the past 15 years. However, pressure to develop new neighborhoods on lush green hillsides is threatening to undermine the very environment that provides the quality of life that draws in residents. A new tourism project led by Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), an Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian NGO, hopes to conserve the environment around Tzur Hadassah by promoting education, economic growth and enhancing relations with the nearby Palestinian village, Wadi Fukin. The Neighbors' Paths initiative was launched last week at two hiking trails running between the communities. "We call it eco-tourism because it is very ecologically friendly to travel by foot or by bike. As the community grows, we're emphasizing the importance of considering the effects on nature and to show residents what is around their community. By developing tourism we want to raise the importance of preserving open spaces," explains Ehud Uziel, FoEME's coordinator at Tzur Hadassah. Despite its rural setting, Tzur Hadassah is a decidedly urban community, populated by middle-class families who predominantly commute to work in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Many residents do not use the natural resources for recreation and access has been further restricted by the installation of a wire security fence around the town's perimeter. "I used to be a tour guide so I get out into nature a lot, but not everyone in Tzur Hadassah is like that. Most of the community does not think about the opportunity to walk around and see the environment here," says Schwied. To minimize the ecological impact, the hiking trail runs along a path originally used for goat herding that snakes along the hillside, providing a view of the valley below before stopping short of the Green Line, just 500 meters from Tzur Hadassah. A separate path starts from Wadi Fukin on the other side of the Green Line, highlighting its network of 11 natural springs that provide agricultural irrigation through a system of canals and pools developed over hundreds of years. Its ecological resources are astonishing for a village with a population of just 1,200. The trail also takes visitors to the ecological garden built in cooperation with the local school and FoEME to promote water conservation. Environmental pressures at Tzur Hadassah stem from internal development, but Wadi Fukin faces threats from outside its community. While Tzur Hadassah is barely visible on the valley's western ridge, the view of the opposite hillside is dominated by the settlement of Betar Illit. "One of the main problems is sewage discharge from the settlement which caused several agricultural fields to be abandoned," local farmer Abu Mazen told In Jerusalem. The village once covered 12,000 dunams (3,000 acres) but is now limited to a quarter of the size. Betar Illit, established in 1990, is the fastest growing settlement in the West Bank and now boasts 37,000 residents. The Betar Illit local council declined to provide a response. Additional environmental hazards include huge piles of rubble from Betar dumped in the wadi as well as the planned security fence. "We hope that the Neighbors' Paths project will help to guard the water and the land in Wadi Fukin," says Abu Mazen. By making constructive use of their environment the neighbors hope to create "facts on the ground" within their own communities in order to halt further pollution and environmentally insensitive development. Using the environment as an educational and economic resource will give it a tangible value other than prime "real estate" for more buildings. The cooperation between these two communities and the 15 other Neighbors' Paths in cross-border communities in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority was heralded as the "real Annapolis" by Munqueth Meyhar, FoEME's Jordanian director. Despite what Meyhar calls real "grassroots people-to-people peace," participants are acutely aware of the cultural and political barriers between them and that attracting tourists from outside is sometimes easier than connecting Tzur Hadassah and Wadi Fukin. "We hope one day we will be able to connect the two paths, but we can't do that now. It's an asymmetrical relationship because our Palestinian neighbors can't travel to Tzur Hadassah [due to army restrictions]," explains Uziel. There is already interest in using the paths from large urban centers like Jerusalem as well as from many schools, he says. "Anything that connects people and the environment provides the opportunity to create new bridges," agrees Ruti Frum Ariha of the Agriculture Ministry.