The Jerusalem Forest
The Jewish national Fund is best known for administering open spaces such as the Jerusalem Forest, but its activities go beyond tree-planting. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Green groups are battling amongst themselves over whether new apartment complexes should go up in the hills west of Jerusalem or inside the city itself.

Over the past decade, Jerusalem has become a major environmental battleground. It began with a struggle to conserve the Emek Ha'arazim Valley at the city's western entrance, where thousands of homes were planned, and continued with the fight against the Safdie plan for developing the capital's western approaches.

Environmental groups scored a major victory last month when the Interior Ministry canceled the construction of an industrial zone in the Har Harat area west of the city.

The battle now focuses on plans to build a road, Route 16, through the Jerusalem Forest, as well as more than 1,000 homes at Mitzpeh Nafto'ah, a hill adjoining the northern Ramot neighborhood that overlooks Emek Ha'arazim.

In the city itself, residents have been fighting plans for residential projects on green spaces near the Givat Massuah, Malkha and Gilo neighborhoods. Plans to build thousands of housing units in these areas are being pushed by the Jerusalem housing committee.

The organization Sustainable Jerusalem seeks to protect these areas, with the help of dozens of residents' committees and associations.

But after achieving a number of victories, the green groups are now sharply divided. Several organizations, led by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, lobbied against the Safdie plan by arguing that Jerusalem itself has enough land for construction.

Thus the SPNI, Israel's largest environmental group, doesn't object to developments at Mitzpeh Nafto'ah, home to an array of wildlife and vegetation. Neither does it object to Route 16 or construction plans at Givat Massuah, Malkha and Gilo.

The disappointment with the SPNI's stance among Jerusalem greens is perhaps best expressed by Tzipi Ron, a founder of the SPNI's local branch. She quit the group several weeks ago, resigning from her leadership role at the Jerusalem branch.

"It was for ideological reasons, because of the organization's position on building plans in the city," Ron says. "The quality of life in the urban environment must also be considered, not just the areas surrounding the city. So it's important, for instance, to preserve the land around places like Givat Massuah, Malkha and Gilo. Some of these areas are important as ecological transition zones for wildlife and vegetation."

Residents of the Jerusalem Forest continue fighting plans for Route 16, especially plans to build an interchange. Residents are also battling against development plans for Mitzpeh Nafto'ah, Givat Massuah, Malkha and Gilo.

The government is expected to change Mitzpeh Nafto'ah's designation as forest land and slate it for development. But several ministers are opposed.

"As an environmental organization, we need to consider how to achieve the best possible result," says Pazit Schweid, the head of the SPNI's Jerusalem branch. "The neighborhood action committees have a more local perspective, and naturally I understand the concerns of people facing construction right in front of their homes."

The SPNI's acceptance of construction in places like Malkha and Givat Massuah is consistent with its view that green areas outside the city shouldn't be built on, and that neighborhoods inside the city can be extended.

"Construction planned for Givat Massuah is actually the extension of the built-up area by the zoo," Schweid says. "This is also true for Mitzpeh Nafto'ah. We dealt extensively with Route 16, and our main achievement there is that a good part of the highway will pass through a tunnel."

Schweid says the SPNI continues working to minimize environmental and scenic damage to areas where it agrees construction can take place. "We want to make changes to the Route 16 interchange in the Jerusalem Forest and to Mitzpeh Nafto'ah," she says. "Our position is to leave the forest canopy untouched and maintain a connection between the forest and the neighborhood."

According to Rachel Adam, a Ramot resident active in the fight to save the hilltop woodland, "We view construction at Mitzpeh Nafto'ah as choking our neighborhood, leaving us without any green spaces.

"As for the Givat Massuah area, when you look at the strip intended for construction between the existing neighborhood and the zoo, it's really cruel for the people who will have to live there - on such a steep and narrow piece of land."