Save the gazelles of northern Jerusalem

Their ultimate fate will be decided by the Jerusalem Regional Planning and Building Committee.

gazelle 88 (photo credit: )
gazelle 88
(photo credit: )
A little-known process is underway, the outcome of which could have an irrevocable impact on Israeli society in general and Jerusalem in particular. The issue is the fate of the Jerusalem population of the Israeli gazelles, gazella gazella, that inhabit the Jerusalem hill known as Mitzpeh Neftoach, planned for intense development. Mitzpeh Neftoach is the only remaining undeveloped hill in north Jerusalem, as poignantly depicted in the panoramic view from the top of Mount Castel, laying bare the fierce development that has devoured the biblical Jerusalem landscape, transforming pastoral green hills into cement blocks. Mitzpeh Neftoach borders the neighborhood of Ramot from the south and Emek Ha'arazim from the east, comprising together precious gazelle habitat. For the primary threat to gazelles, as to biodiversity in general, is habitat destruction. Two decades ago the Jerusalem gazelle population was estimated at 250, out of an estimated 3,000 nationally. It has since decreased to around 50-100, the most viable remaining population being that of Mitzpeh Neftoah. However, despite its uniqueness as one of the last remaining natural holdouts, the city of Jerusalem together with the Israel Lands Administration have over the last two decades cast rapacious glances at Mitzpeh Neftoach and are determined to turn it into a housing project of approximately 1,700 units. THE FATE of its gazelles will ultimately be decided by the Jerusalem Regional Planning and Building Committee. But for this committee as for other government bodies, the gazelles simply do not exist. When challenged as to their total disregard of the gazelles, their common position is that injury to the gazelle population as a result of development, is the price to be paid in the name of progress. They are singularly not perturbed by the thought that the gazelles will disappear as a result of their decision, and apparently do not see their responsibility and accountability under the public trust doctrine as including wildlife, no matter how threatened. The argument presented here is that the decision to transform Mitzpeh Neftoah, from an open green space into a housing project, raises moral and ethical issues concerning treatment by humans of other species. As discussed by the renowned biologist E.O. Wilson regarding the role of government in protecting biodiversity: "The commitment must be …to let no species knowingly die, to take all reasonable action to protect every species and race in perpetuity. The government's moral responsibility in the conservation of biodiversity is similar to that in the public health and military defense..". If our moral obligation is to protect other species that are at our complete mercy and ensure their survival, as a society we should be questioning the ethical implications of undertaking a project that will knowingly bring to the demise of another species. The irrevocable loss of the gazelles from the Jerusalem landscape reflects unethical development practices, and hence we are morally obliged to stop them. And this is all the more true when there are alternatives. For to approve the development plans for Mitzpeh Neftoah is not only an unethical decision it is also a manifestly unreasonable one: the National Council for Building and Planning rejected the Safdie Plan that called for the building of 20,000 housing units in the hills west of Jerusalem, based on data that indicated existing building capacity within Jerusalem proper for tens of thousands of housing units. NOTWITHSTANDING, government decision makers have consistently ignored arguments as to the need to protect and save Mitzpeh Neftoach's rich biodiversity. Thus the gazelles, handicapped as are other non-human species by their lack of speech, would have been doomed to a silent, unknown, and ignoble demise if not for their human neighbors: by close affiliation of many years, they had become aware of the gazelles' predicament and added them as petitioners to their petition before the High Court of Justice, challenging the government's decision to develop the area. The High Court has issued an order nisi, requiring the government to explain its reasons for developing Mitzpeh Neftoah, and the case is now pending before the court. By exposing them to the vagaries of human behavior and endangering them by the changes that man has made to the physical world, we are accountable for the harm we inflict on other species. We compete fiercely with them over habitat and since we are technologically advanced and they are not, we easily prevail over them. We have literally pushed them to the brink of extinction as a result of our voracious appetite for seemingly endless development, to satisfy our own wants and supposed needs. Hence we are morally responsible to ensure their welfare and their survival. For many mammal species that once roamed Israel, it is too late, thus ensuring the survival of the gazelle takes on an element of urgency. As described by Prof. Wilson: "The ongoing loss of biodiversity is the greatest since the end of the Mesozoic Era sixty-five million ago. At that time, by current scientific consensus, the impact of one or more giant meteorites darkened the atmosphere, altered much of Earth's climate, and extinguished the dinosaurs. Thus began the next stage of evolution, the Cenozoic Era or Age of Mammals. The extinction spasm we are now inflicting can be moderated if we so choose. Otherwise, the next century will see the closing of the Cenzoic Era and a new one characterized not by new life forms but by biological impoverishment. It might be appropriately called the "Eremozoic Era," the Age of Loneliness." FOR EVERY species lost, we shall be leaving our children and our children's children an increasingly impoverished Earth. If we today feel angry and cheated by former generations for eliminating species that once roamed Israel, such as the brown bear, the lion, the cheetah, the wild cattle, (in addition to the species of small organisms that are the nuts and bolts of viably functioning ecosystems) how will future generations feel when we leave them an environment destitute of any wildlife whatsoever? We will be depriving them of the opportunity of sharing life in the natural world with other species, denying them the use of the natural world as a foundation for spiritual contentment and enjoyment. By the time the breadth of the mistake and its implications will be revealed, it will be too late to rectify the situation. Mitzpeh Neftoach will have been transformed into another cement-covered Jerusalem hill, bereft of the plants and animals that once inhabited it. And all that will remain of the gazelles will be legends that once upon a time "real gazelles" had roamed these hills, once children were able to gaze upon them, not just in the zoo, but in nature, in a habitat shared by both child and gazelle that formed a bond between them traveling back in time to our shared mammalian roots. THE WAY before us is clear: Do we choose to continue down our well trodden and thus comfortable and familiar path of fierce development that will ultimately lead to the destruction of what remains of nature in Jerusalem, aware that we shall bear the responsibility for the demise of those few remaining species that had somehow succeeded in slipping through our grasping fingers and survived? Shall we be eternally and notoriously remembered as the last generation that could have saved these species, but knowingly and recklessly failed in this duty? Or, we will be wise enough to understand that the needs of man do not have to be at the expense of other species, and that we are morally obligated to ensure their survival. The challenge before us is to effectively use our political and legal systems to persuade the government that its development policy is misguided and ethically wrong. We Israelis are not condemned to live in a nature-less world, in a land devoid of wildlife. We must be wary of those who tell us that it is an unfortunate but necessary price that has to be paid for daring to live in a tiny land with a burgeoning population, together with a long and tragic history of armed conflict with our neighbors. Each one of us can contribute to saving what is left of Israel's natural world, by using our legal right to formally object to the building plan for Mitzpeh Neftoach, calling on the government to stop this senseless destruction of our native habitats and species. The writer, a Jerusalem resident, is an environmental lawyer and is this year's Distinguished Environmental Law Scholar, Environmental & Natural Resources Law Program, at Lewis and Clark Law School, in Portland Oregon.