25,000 New Houses Proposed West of Jerusalem, to the Chagrin of Israeli Environmentalists

Greens object to Israel Lands Authority's plan including new town near Tzur Hadassah, effectively reviving rejected Safdie plan

Moshe Gilad

Eight years after a plan to build 20,000 homes on the hills west of Jerusalem was dropped – to the relief of environmentalists and the capital’s western suburbs – the Israel Lands Authority is advancing an even larger plan that environmental groups are vowing to fight.

“The Jerusalem hills are once again calling on us to defend them,” said Yael Elyashar of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, one of the leaders of the effort to scuttle the previous plan to expand Jerusalem westward, which was known as the Safdie plan.

At issue now is a plan to build at least 25,000 housing units west and southwest of Jerusalem. Near Tzur Hadassah, about 12 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem, there is a plan to build a new town called Bat Harim that will have 15,000 homes spread over 14,000 dunams (3,500 acres). The ILA has already given the go-ahead to begin the urban planning of the community.

There are also plans to build on Har Heret, between Mevasseret Zion and the ridge on which Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem is located. A plan to erect 10,000 homes there on an area of 1,500 dunams is already being prepared by an architectural firm. The environmental groups fear this plan will be fast-tracked through the special committee for housing plans of national importance, which can override the stipulations of master plans and whose decisions are almost impossible to appeal.

To build the neighborhood on Har Heret there will also be a need for a new road that will connect the community to Motza from the north, and to Jerusalem itself from the south. The planned road will eat up hundreds of dunams of open space and break the continuity of the hills for several kilometers. Construction is also being proposed for the ridge west of Hadassah.

The previous attempt to advance building plans in western Jerusalem began around 20 years ago, when the Jerusalem Development Authority started to promote a huge construction plan prepared by architect Moshe Safdie. That plan called for construction of some 20,000 homes on open areas covering some 6,600 acres, near the Ramot neighborhood and on Har Heret, and included the same western ring road.

The development authority argued that the construction would provide housing solutions that would stop the city’s negative migration while avoiding the diplomatic friction that results from building in the eastern part of the city, over the Green Line. There were those who also saw the plan as a way to assure a large Jewish majority in Jerusalem.

Environmentalists fought a lengthy battle against the plan. The turning point came when a professional report was published determining that the city had enough land reserves within the city limits to provide solutions. At that point, the Jerusalem municipality dropped its support for the plan. In 2007, the National Planning and Building Commission rejected the plan, and it never advanced further.

The plan to build Bat Harim is not new, either; a similar plan was proposed 20 years ago as a way to increase housing options in the Jerusalem area, but it was scrapped after large building schemes were approved for Beit Shemesh.

On Tuesday the green groups decried the damage to natural landscapes and wildlife the proposed plan would cause. They also presented a report prepared by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, which determined that the city has enough land reserves to build between 60,000 to 100,000 units through 2040, which would meet the city’s needs. It should be noted that a substantial portion of those land reserves are over the Green Line, in Pisgat Ze’ev, Har Homa, Ramat Shlomo and Givat Hamatos.

The ILA said that the Jerusalem area is in dire straits in terms of home construction and marketing plans for the coming years. “The very presence of Jerusalem in a hilly area that is environmentally sensitive on the one hand and with a political border on the other, leaves very limited space for development. Every planning area that can serve as land reserves is considered by a planning team that examines its potential. To meet the demand requires 2,500 units per year, or 50,000 over the next two decades.”