Uphill battle

Beit Shemesh residents, the city council and environmental groups oppose a housing development in the Beit Natif hills.

beit shemesh 88.298 (photo credit: )
beit shemesh 88.298
(photo credit: )
Just minutes from where the last row of buildings marks the current borders of the neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh sits a series of hills called Beit Natif. The area, which has been slated for development as the third phase of the rapidly expanding Ramat Beit Shemesh, is at the heart of a dispute between local residents and politicians and the Ministry of Construction and Housing. Beit Natif has been selected by the Ministry of Construction and Housing as the site for more than 48,000 new housing units. In a city that over the past decade has experienced dramatic growth, primarily from a large influx of haredim and English-speaking immigrants, this new development could more than double the municipality's population to more than 200,000 residents. The hills of Beit Natif possess unique natural beauty as well as being home to more than two millennia of historical antiquities. With its fresh mountain air and strategic location on the ancient path from the sea to Jerusalem, Beit Natif has served as home to a variety of communities continuously from the period of the Second Temple until 1948. Jews, Christians, Ottomans and Arabs have all at some point called the area home. As a result, it has become an important resource for archaeologists and treasure seekers hunting for relics of Israel's past. Archaeological finds dug up in recent years in Beit Natif are currently for sale on the Internet for more than $1,500. The hills of Beit Natif, home to multiple endangered species of wild and plant life, have been identified as an integral part of the ecological corridor that extends from Sha'ar Hagai, on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, approximately 50 kilometers southward to the area of Beit Guvrin. While the preexisting built-up areas along this corridor have already threatened the region's wildlife, Gil Kasernty, a local teacher who regularly guides groups through Beit Natif, says that further development would create "a virtual wall of China blocking the traffic of animals." The potential for such a dramatic change to the nature of the area has led to the plan's bitter opposition from citizen groups as well as members of the Beit Shemesh City Council. Council member Zvi Wolicki, who says he has been actively involved in the Beit Natif issue for some time, helped form a steering committee specifically designed to address the city's future. Wolicki opposes the notion that Beit Natif should be developed to provide for the influx of tens of thousands of new residents in order to ensure the future stability of the city. Observing a trend whereby many non-haredi families have been leaving Beit Shemesh for other areas, primarily Modi'in, Wolicki says, "I think the perception that Modi'in has more to offer than Beit Shemesh is skewed." Pointing to Beit Natif as an important opportunity to change the future character of the city, Wolicki believes preserving the area for tourism could "bring a different dimension to Beit Shemesh." Some members of the council, together with a group that informally calls itself the Forum for the Preservation of Beit Natif, are currently championing an initiative which has been proposed jointly with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to make a 5,200-dunam area around Beit Natif into a national park. Such a park would protect the area from development for housing purposes and produce a potential influx of tourism into the Beit Shemesh region. The mayor of Beit Shemesh and city planners have reviewed the plan and recognized it as providing important potential for the city, however it has been largely rejected by the Ministry of Construction of Housing. In a letter dated November 7, 2004, then-director general of the ministry said that "the Beit Shemesh area, despite its unique natural beauty and archeological significance, and the environmental and ecological limitations attached to development in this region, is slated to become the second-biggest city in the Jerusalem district." Following a further review of the national park plan submitted by Beit Shemesh city planners in November 2005, representatives of the ministry again reinforced their position, saying: "The Construction and Housing Ministry will not be advancing any changes to their plan and will oppose any changes." Of the 5,200-dunam plan that has been proposed, the ministry and the Antiquities Authority had identified approximately 1,000 dunams in two separate areas to be preserved. Dr. Rafi Lottner, head of the Forum for the Preservation of Beit Natif, believes that while these areas reflect that the authorities recognize the historic nature of the region, such a move would be unlikely to draw any significant tourism to the area. "The value of these specific sites would be limited because they would be located within neighborhoods and would fail to attract people from outside Beit Shemesh," he says. Lottner, who has been actively working with the relevant agencies and figures to place the national parks proposal on the public agenda, fears that the development of Beit Natif could bring in a large new influx of residents that would further depreciate property values and increase negative migration. However, Lottner says, "The agenda to preserve Beit Natif is in no way designed to stop haredim from moving here, but is rather to do with the nature and wildlife of the area and making Beit Shemesh an enjoyable place for all of its residents." For Kasernty, who as a local teacher has brought hundreds of schoolchildren to Beit Natif, the area represents far more than a chance to experience some natural beauty or glimpse into Israel's past. With hopes of making the park into a center for ecological tourism, he believes that such a park would expose people to a side of their community of which they had never been aware. "People don't realize what they have in their own backyards," he says. "This area represents our very traditions and to destroy it we would seem to be saying that today our traditions aren't really worth anything." Despite the responses that have been received to date from the Ministry of Construction and Housing, the local activists plan to continue the effort to develop the national park with the goal of making the city's residents aware of the potential such a plan could present. Wolicki, who believes that creating the park is possible, says, "The battle will require a lot of public participation to say that Beit Natif really is worth saving."