Gazelles near Jerusalem - Doron Nissim - 06032012
Gazelles near Jerusalem. Kibbutzim were told it shouldn’t take long to leave the area. Photo by Doron Nissim
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A court has ordered two Jerusalem-area kibbutzim to vacate land in what is known as "Gazelle Valley" by the start of next year.

The Jerusalem Magistrate's Court rejected the kibbutzim's claim that they had rights to the land and ordered them to jointly pay the Israel Lands Administration NIS 50,000 in legal expenses.

Permission to cultivate crops in Gazelle Valley, located between the Katamon and Givat Mordechai neighborhoods of Jerusalem, was given to Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha and Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim back in the 1950s. In the 1990s, however, the kibbutzim sought to get the valley rezoned from agricultural to residential use, with the aim of building a major housing project there.

The valley, whose name derives from the small flock of gazelles that live there, is the largest open space left in the heart of Jerusalem. As a result, the kibbutzim's plan sparked fierce opposition from both Jerusalem residents and environmental groups.

After a battle that lasted for years, the residents finally emerged victorious. The municipality scrapped the construction plan and designated the valley as an open park in which the gazelles could continue to flourish. To this day, this is considered one of the most important victories Israel's environmental movement has ever won.

But the kibbutzim insisted that they had legal rights to the land and refused to vacate it.

In 2004 the ILA sued the kibbutzim to demand that they quit the valley. The kibbutzim promptly filed a countersuit demanding that the ILA recognize their rights to the land, saying that since the 1950s, an "administrative promise" to grant them a permanent lease had been repeatedly confirmed.

But Judge Oded Shaham rejected this claim.

"The consistent picture" that emerges from the evidence, he wrote, "is that the ILA was careful not to give any promise regarding the defendants' rights to the land."

He also rejected the kibbutzim's back-up request, which was to defer their eviction for 10 years to give them time to make the necessary "logistical preparations." Since they haven't actually grown crops in the valley for years, Shaham said, the preparations shouldn't take very long. He therefore ordered them to leave by January 1, 2013.

The kibbutzim are already promising to appeal.

"The kibbutzim have held this land for 50 years," said their lawyer, Avi Menchel. "Together with the ILA, they drew up a plan to rezone the land. If the court needs 53 pages to explain why the state, rather than the lessee, has a right to this land, it's a sign that the lessee has very strong rights indeed."