The Battle to Save the Biblical Landscape of Jerusalem's Ein Karem

Ein Karem, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem, is an Israeli landmark, a beautiful valley and a spring sacred to Christians. No wonder developers have set their sights on this magical place.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Winter was kind to the Ein Karem valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem: hundreds of almond trees blossomed brilliantly and the green is still lush. But this spring, other things are growing there. The colorful, placid village is in the throes of a development and building spree, and unsightly metal fences have gone up around construction sites. Huge residential areas on one side, national infrastructure facilities on the other, and in between a restaurant that was built illegally, a hotel that threatens to block the flow of water from the sacred spring, and a vast concrete structure, partly filled with gravel, built atop important archaeological remains.

Ein Karem has become a battleground between zealous developers and residents who are trying to fight the bulldozers, while indifferent authorities look on from the sidelines. In the past few years, local residents have repeatedly uncovered planning flaws and cases of corruption. At least three times they managed to block the construction and force the authorities or the developers to demolish illegal structures with their own hands. In one case, an extensive criminal investigation ensued. The sequence of events gives rise to concern about what happens in cases where there is no group of dedicated, skilled local residents.

Still, despite some victories, the residents of Ein Karem appear to be losing the war; the development momentum in the village and the surrounding valley continues unabated. Now is the time to visit Ein Karem, because in a few years it will be a completely different place.

If you ask Ron Havilio, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Ein Karem and is a leader of the campaign to preserve the neighborhood, the history of Ein Karem is the history of all the cultures that were active in the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean since the dawn of history. Not far from here, the earliest evidence of permanent human habitation was found. “This is the cradle of agriculture of this land,” he says. “We see here the genius of the inhabitants of this country − not of Jews or Arabs, but of those who developed the agricultural terraces, the aqueducts and the varieties of grapes. This is where it begins.”

According to the standard interpretation, Ein Karem is the biblical Beit Hakerem, where the stones used to build the altar of the Temple were quarried. In the Christian narrative, Ein Karem is mentioned as the “city of Judah,” where Mary, mother of Jesus, met with Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, while both were pregnant with sons who would change the world. The spring in the center of the village − known as Mary’s Spring − is considered the fourth holiest site in Christendom, after Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem.

For Palestinians, Ein Karem is the only village that survived the Nakba intact. “Even the villages that were not abandoned have changed beyond recognition,” Havilio says. “Ein Karem is the last village, the lost paradise. It’s the same as when we [Jews] visit towns in Poland.” Ben Ofarim, who is also deeply involved in the struggle, notes that “The British, in their wisdom, referred to [the former Arab villages of] Lifta, Deir Yassin, Ein Karem and Malha as pastoral anchorages around the Jerusalem metropolis. Now only Ein Karem remains, and it is in danger. I no longer choke in holy anger, maybe this is our fate, but it is a mistake and it can be averted.” Regrettably, the more one probes the stories behind the metal fences, the more one discovers that it’s not a mistake, but an unbelievable chronicle of corruption, negligence and scorn for the law by developers and state authorities.

Giant man

The building that triggered the local inhabitants’ struggle is a huge, sealed stone structure that was erected one day three years ago at one of the most sensitive spots in the neighborhood: the entrance to the valley opposite Mary’s Spring. Festive signs announced the building of a broad square and an observation point for groups of pilgrims, but the eyes saw a different story: a building, not a square. The structure, to be placed below a tiled square, will contain public toilets and a storeroom for the municipality’s garden tools. To build it − no one understands why it must be precisely in this spot − ancient water systems that channeled the spring water to the agricultural terraces of the valley were buried.

With much effort, Havilio was able to reconstruct the winding path on which the municipality and the Tourism Ministry built the structure − without actually obtaining a construction permit. Havilio: “At first, they asked for a permit to build a square. It doesn’t even say ‘square’ − it says ‘fences, tiling and development of the street of the spring.’ Then they inserted supporting walls − not a building, only supporting walls. After that was approved, they requested a permit to build a structure for toilets and for a municipality storeroom within an existing structure − as though a structure already existed. But bear in mind that there was no structure yet, only supporting walls.”

In the third stage, two more walls were built to complete the structure. Only then did the municipality and the Tourism Ministry return a third time to the planning committee with a request “to correct a typo” in the plans. The typo consisted of the fact that, contrary to what was stated, the structure did not actually exist and therefore walls and a floor had to be added to the plan. Because it was only a typo, the matter was not taken up by the planning committee and the typo was quickly corrected. But at some point, an unknown hand added another correction to the plan. Instead of the structure that had been supposedly approved, which had an area of 93.5 square meters, an area 3.5 times the size − 320 square meters − was drawn in. Signs of the correction fluid are clearly visible on the documents. Thus, without anyone having approved it, a huge structure, designated for public toilets and a storeroom for garden tools, was built just meters away from a world pilgrimage site.

In another small trick by the authorities, a human figure was drawn in the square on the plans. The purpose: to provide a scale for the size of the square. An architect who lives in Ein Karem found this suspicious. He placed local residents in the same spot and photographed them. He then made calculations, which showed that if the person in the drawing were to stand up, he would be 2.8 meters tall. The giant was intended to fool the observer about the size of the grandiose square and the building below it.

Local residents launched a campaign against “the monster,” as they called the building. They filed an appeal against the plans and pointed out the planning snafu. As with every other similar campaign in the neighborhood, it was once again claimed that they had “remembered too late.”

“One of the most difficult aspects of the struggles is the allegation of lateness,” Havilio explains. “Everything has a period of time in which you can raise objections, and that made it very difficult for us.”

But following the appeal, the planning committee ordered the developers to demolish part of the building and fill another part with earth and gravel. So, for days on end trucks arrived and dumped tons of gravel into the structure. The result is a large concrete cube filled in part with earth and gravel, below which archaeological remains lie buried, all this at one of the holiest and most sensitive sites in Israel.

No one in Ein Karem can understand the reasons for the puzzling behavior of the municipality and the Tourism Ministry regarding the mysterious concrete structure. After all, if the idea is to provide services to pilgrims, what better than to build an archaeological park that would include water systems from the time of Jesus, with the spring water flowing again and irrigating the ancient terraces, instead of the water flowing into the sewerage system? The prevailing theory in the neighborhood − vehemently denied by the municipality and the Tourism Ministry − is that the building, officially designated for toilets, was originally planned as a restaurant.

As for the Israel Antiquities Authority, its erratic behavior in regard to the building is in a class by itself, even compared to the actions of the local and state authorities. The IAA apparently suffered from a split personality over the finds uncovered in a rescue dig carried out before the gravel-filled structure was built. On the one hand, senior IAA archaeologists declared that the finds were important and should be preserved; they supported a plan for an archaeological park at the site. On the other hand, in each case where the IAA was called on to decide, it unhesitatingly allowed developers to continue construction and bury the finds.

In 2009, for example, after the conclusion of the excavations and the discovery of the water systems, a representative of the IAA demanded of the Government Tourist Corporation that “the excavations shall be preserved and remain open to the public.” Two months later, Jon Seligman, the Jerusalem region archaeologist, wrote that contrary to the IAA recommendation, the municipality had decided not to uncover the findings but to bury them beneath the building. “At least they will be preserved for better days,” Seligman wrote.

After the building was already standing, and in the wake of the public struggle, the IAA addressed the subject again. By now, there were some who regretted the earlier approach. Thus, Uzi Dahari, the IAA’s deputy director, said in an internal discussion, “The appeals committee is making very clear and unflattering comments about the IAA’s behavior. They are coming back to the conclusion that an archaeological park should be established there. We need to adopt that decision and demand implementation from the Government Tourist Corporation. The main element is the connection between the spring and the agricultural terraces and the aqueducts. We need to insist that there be a connection to the spring and create an archaeological park.”

This was subsequently inserted in an official IAA policy document. It stated that if the presence of the building at the entrance to the valley was being reconsidered, “then the archaeological remains can and should be integrated into the development of the area.” To ensure that this time the IAA would back them, residents of Ein Karem met with the current Jerusalem region archaeologist, Yuval Baruch. He admitted, “We were rash and even stupid in our approach to this project in the past.” But despite all these declarations, when the moment of truth came and the IAA was called on to renew the building permit at the site, it did so unhesitatingly and unconditionally.

The residents then petitioned the High Court of Justice against the IAA’s professional judgment. “The IAA has two voices,” attorneys Shirin Barghouti-Milham and Ofer Gitlitz, who are representing the residents, wrote. “One voice ‏(internal‏) represents the professional position, holding that the excavations at the site should continue and uncover the secrets of the ancient Jewish past and the roots of Christianity. Whereas the other voice repeatedly and without ado approves the continued implementation of the project, which entails the destruction, burial and erasure of the physical evidence of the archaeology at the site and keeps it from the public and from future generations.”

Appended to the petition was a letter from the deputy chief of the Tourist Corporation, David Mingelgreen, which attests to the Tourism Ministry’s attitude toward archaeology. “The goal is to refrain as far as possible from work that will require archaeological digs,” Mingelgreen wrote to the municipality. In another letter, the director general of the Tourist Corporation urges the municipality to allow the construction work to proceed. The words “urgent” and “rush” in the short letter are underlined twice.

But Mary’s Spring faces another threat, even more serious than the one posed by the concrete structure. Opposite the metal fence that encircles the structure is another metal fence, behind which a 32-room hotel is to be built. The hotel plan was approved in 2008, again in apparent contradiction to the Ein Karem master plan, which prohibits large-scale construction. The building of the hotel demands large-scale quarrying of a cliff − the very cliff from which the spring emanates. Hydrologists who visited the site warned that altering the rock face is liable, by accident, to affect the natural channel of the water and cause the sudden drying up of the spring.

Dr. Gabriel Weinberger, the head of the Israel Hydrological Service, visited the site and about a month ago wrote to Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur: “Indeed, there is a risk that during the digging one of the arteries that carry water to the spring will be uncovered or damaged. In other words, there is definitely a likelihood that the Ein Karem spring is liable to be harmed in the work to build the hotel.” What this means is that in order to build a small hotel, Israel is liable to lose the waters of the spring that is holiest to Christians. Here, too, it was claimed that the residents had “remembered too late.”

Window to the Bible

The population of Ein Karem consists of veteran residents who arrived as new immigrants in the 1950s and were housed by the government in abandoned Arab homes; artists who received houses in the 1970s; and people with money who discovered the charming enclave in the 1980s and 1990s. Havilio is an exception. He landed in Ein Karem almost by chance. His first visit was in 1973. “We were a young couple and our parents got together and bought us an apartment in French Hill, which was yet to be built. [French Hill is a post-1967 neighborhood in the north of Jerusalem.] I chose the southwest building, because I thought that from the top floor I would be able to see the whole of the Old City. But when the building was under construction we saw that there was not one window in the whole southern wall with a view to the Old City.”

One day, the Havilios set out from the apartment without a view for a visit to Ein Karem. “We were absolutely charmed by the place. We decided to rent an apartment there for a year; and then you really can’t leave.” Subsequently, Havilio bought a house in the heart of Ein Karem, with fine arches and surrounded by a garden − formerly the home of an Arab family. His subterranean study is now the headquarters of the campaign to stop the new building projects. His love of Ein Karem and his anger at what is going on have made him a walking encyclopedia of the history of the village and its chronicle of destruction. With infinite diligence he is collating the archaeological finds, one by one, along with the planning documents, the lies and the small frauds. From them he compiles long, illuminating and worrisome documents about what the future holds for Ein Karem and, no less important, about the behavior of the local and state authorities.

The documents are the basis of the public campaign and the legal appeals against the building plans. “At the end of the 1970s, when we waged our first struggle, our motto was that this is a biblical landscape, even though no one really thought it was biblical,” says Havilio. “But today I know that there was something to it: it really is biblical. The present village was built in the course of 400 years, but parts of it, such as the terraces, really are from the period of the Bible.”

Havilio maintains that the Israeli archaeological establishment has neglected Ein Karem. No proper excavation has ever been conducted there, he says. All the archaeological information comes from the excavations carried out in the 19th century and in quick, short rescue digs undertaken whenever a new construction project looms. The IAA admits that “Ein Karem is saturated with antiquities,” but notes that “so is most of the area of the city of Jerusalem.”

Radiation park

About 100 meters from the metal fence that encircles the structure opposite the spring is yet another fence. In the heart of Ein Karem’s main street, where a Lebanese restaurant stood until it was shut down for health reasons, another construction site has sprung up. Private developers have received a permit to build a new restaurant there. In the past decade, Ein Karem has in fact become a lively restaurant and leisure area, particularly for secular Jerusalemites on Saturdays. Once again, local residents discovered that what was authorized in the building permit did not match what was being built in practice. The case they made to the district commission’s appeals committee opened a Pandora’s box that shook the municipality’s planning authorities.

When the commission’s members visited the site in July 2012, they were informed by a representative of the Israel Lands Administration that the signature of the ILA official on the construction permit was a forgery. The tour broke up amid heated arguments and mutual recriminations. Then the police unit for the investigation of economic crimes stepped in. Senior figures in the Jerusalem municipality’s engineering department were questioned, along with the project’s developers. The investigation is now in its final stages, and as yet no recommendation to file indictments has been made. In the meantime, the building permit was revoked, work was halted and the ILA demolished part of the structure, which was built illegally. The developers appealed against the cancellation of the permit. Until the legal tangle is sorted out, a metal fence will continue to seal off a construction site at which no construction is underway.

Further down, a few hundred meters from the spring, a new scandal has emerged in the past few months. This time another government agency, the Jerusalem Development Authority, was caught doing illegal work. One day, Ein Karem residents discovered that bulldozers had bared a green area of about three dunams ‏(three-quarters of an acre‏), leveled it and dumped earth on it. In addition, an asphalt road and a bicycle path had been built at the site. It soon emerged that all the work had been done without permits and even without the full approval of a plan that had been submitted.

The site turned out to be part of a project to create a Jerusalem metropolitan park. A complex of nature reserves, bicycle and walking paths and places for leisure activity, the park will envelop Jerusalem on three sides. It is meant to be the crowning glory of Jerusalem’s open spaces and restore some green to the city. One of the major entrances to the park is meant to be situated at the base of Ein Karem, not far from the lower entrance to the village. The Jerusalem Development Authority built a huge parking lot there, an approach road from the direction of the nearby village of Beit Zayit and a bicycle path. There were no permits for any of this. Hundreds of trees and bushes paid the price.

“You take three dunams of the best soil in Jerusalem − the best conditions for agriculture existed here at the bottom of the valley, this might be where agriculture began in the Land of Israel, it’s a national treasure − you take that treasure and cover it with sand and gravel,” Havilio says with palpable frustration. “I felt like I was living in Sicily, in a Mafioso state. You figure that if you draw an official’s attention to something like this that he will panic. They weren’t scared in the least, because they were sure it would go by quietly.”

In August, a hearing was held by Dalit Zilber, Jerusalem district commissioner in the Interior Ministry. She was furious with the JDA. “The district commissioner made it clear that paving works cannot be carried out without a detailed plan ... The asphalt, which is not part of the authorized plan, must be removed and the execution of the order reported immediately to the district commissioner,” the ruling stated. But despite the unequivocal language, it was not until a month ago, seven months after the ruling, that the illegal asphalt sections were removed. The parking lot remains intact.

In the meantime, the same area now faces a new and particularly serious threat. Not far from the parking lot and from the site of a planned restaurant − for the enjoyment of those who will visit the metropolitan park − one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the Judean Hills is slated to be built. It will be part of the fifth water pipeline to Jerusalem. Intended to supply water to the city for the next 50 years, the pipeline is a vast project. The facility to be built in the Ein Karem valley will be the largest of its kind in Israel. It will contain a collection pool, which by itself will cover an area the size of a soccer field and have walls 15 meters high. There will also be a power station, high-tension wires, dozens of pumps and a colossal network of pipes. The main pipe will be wide enough for a car to drive through it. An area of 25 dunams ‏(6.25 acres‏) will be dug out and destroyed in order to accommodate the facility.

Discussions held in early March by the district planning commission showed that there is no possibility of combining the hydrology project with the metropolitan park. The water facility would generate noise and radiation that rule out implementation of the plan for the entrance to the park. The residents of Ein Karem, together with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, put forward a proposal to establish the water facility at the Beit Zayit base, a large abandoned military base that is very close to the site. However, even though the location of the base is better from the engineering point of view, and incalculably better ecologically; even though the facility would occupy only a tenth of the area of the base; and even though the base has not been in use for 20 years, the Defense Ministry refuses to part with this property. The ministry claims it has to retain the area for “various purposes, including purposes of future deployment.”

Ben Ofarim, Havilio’s colleague in the struggle, says angrily, “The defense establishment is saying to everyone, ‘I will cost you tens of millions more and I will deliver a death blow to this whole valley.’ Why? Because I can.”

Not far off, yet another infrastructure threat to the area looms: a huge gas terminal that will be part of the natural gas line serving Jerusalem in the future. Its construction will entail the leveling of a broad strip of land around it, as a fire-safety precaution. If the water and gas facilities are built − and everyone involved is convinced that they will indeed be built − the green confluence of streams at the bottom of Ein Karem will become a burgeoning industrial complex.

Death blow

Yet this whole array of threats to the preservation of Ein Karem − from the square at the spring, the hotel and the restaurant to the pumping station and the gas facility − are dwarfed by two immense construction plans on the upper slopes of Ein Karem, in the green space between the village and the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood above. Here, the value of preserving Ein Karem and its surroundings clashes with the struggle to maintain the balance between the religious and secular populations in Jerusalem.

According to the maps drawn up by the municipality, the southwestern section of the city, which has Kiryat Hayovel at its center, is slated to become the area of development of Jerusalem’s secular population. Thousands of housing units will be built in dozens of high-rises in what is intended to be the largest new neighborhood in the city in the foreseeable future. American and European pressure on Israel to stop building Jewish neighborhoods across the Green Line, together with the municipality’s determination under Mayor Nir Barkat to thwart any expansion of the city westward ‏(the so-called “Safdie plan,” of the architect Moshe Safdie‏) have only increased pressure on the green slopes along the road to Ein Karem.

The price of this plan has been all too visible in the past few months. Dozens of bulldozers have crushed one of the large slopes descending to Ein Karem from Kiryat Menahem ‏(the neighborhood adjacent to Kiryat Hayovel‏) in order to build a wide road with a moderate incline and erect hundreds of residential units. The new road will replace the narrow, winding road that descends to Ein Karem − known to Jerusalemites as the “goat trail.” The new neighborhood has been named “Nof Ein Karem” − Ein Karem Vista − but the sign declaring this has been amended by an anonymous hand to read “Heres Nof Ein Karem”: “Destruction of Ein Karem Vista.” And the biggest metal fence of all has gone up around this construction site.

Until a few months ago, this was a green area in which multiple species of plants flourished alongside a variety of fruit trees. The area also contained three ancient wine presses, a cave cut into the hillside which served as a winery, an early stone quarry, an old agricultural building and also the last hut in Jerusalem of the 1950s transit camps for new immigrants. All this bulldozers wiped off the face of the earth within a few weeks.

“I saw the plans and almost passed out. This is not the way building is done in Jerusalem. They took plans from Modi’in and Petah Tikva, leveled the plots and are building. The result is horrendous support walls,” Havilio says. He admits that in this case “there are no dark deeds; the residents of Ein Karem simply fell asleep on their watch.” Nevertheless, the residents’ committee was able to reduce the damage in this case, too. Following an appeal it submitted, some of the facilitations that had been granted to the developers were revoked, and the apartment buildings will be nine stories tall instead of the originally planned 11.

The IAA has come under fire in this case, too, for not taking seriously enough the antiquities that were uncovered just before the bulldozers arrived. Only a few days were devoted to excavations in the large area. The finds, even in that short time, were dramatic, Havilio says: “Fragments of jugs were found on the floor of the cave, indicating that it was in use at the end of the First Temple period. There is a reasonable chance that this is testimony to the destruction of the Temple − that the work stopped when the Temple was destroyed and they went into exile. You don’t find something like this every day.” The nearby stone quarry is harder to date, but there too the work was stopped in the middle and stones that were quarried remained attached to the rock face.

The IAA did not lift a finger to try to salvage any of these finds, Havilio says. “To save the two presses and the agricultural building it would have been necessary to move the road a little. Let’s say that’s complicated. But in order to save the winery cave and the quarry there was no need to do anything, just to be careful. They were on the border of the earthworks area. But the IAA freed up the whole area unconditionally. They have so many antiquities that they no longer fight, they throw out everything.” The IAA rejects these allegations and says the findings at the site were “meager” ‏(see below for the full response‏).

Farther along the slope there are plans for what Havilio calls “the death blow to Ein Karem” − a huge neighborhood of thousands of residential units. It has been named “Karmit,” evoking a boarding school that once existed at the site. The major plan calls for 1,040 residential units to be built. Two more plans are slated for the same area, involving the evacuation of two vast tenements from the 1950s on Brazil Street and Olswanger Street in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood. Each of those developments will add another 1,000 homes. “It will be a transportation calamity, a whole city with nowhere to flow into,” Havilio says, adding, “But it’s not just the transportation. If Karmit goes ahead, you can forget about Ein Karem. That will be the end.”

According to Avraham Shaked, from the Society for the Protection of Nature and a member of the district commission, what Havilio, Ofarim and others uncovered in Ein Karem is not unique to that neighborhood. “Things like this happen everywhere. The main problem of Ein Karem is that for years it was treated exclusively as a piece of real estate,” Shaked says. “It took time for everyone to realize that this is a very serious threat to a cultural asset, a place of Israeli and world importance, almost in the same category as the Old City, and which cannot be treated like this. The residents were looked upon as a strong, arrogant population. But as time passed, it turned out to be lucky that the people in Ein Karem are like that, because their campaign at least brought things to the surface and generated the attention the place needed.”

Ofarim adds: “If you climb to 30,000 feet and look down at western Jerusalem, you will see two strips. One strip − Route 1 − is completely separate, a stretch of graves on one side, along with asphalt and bridges; and on the other side are a train and towers. That is the business route that ascends to Jerusalem. Three kilometers to the south you arrive at a different place, the green core of the Judean Hills. We are the gateway that lies between the green space with its heritage and the hill platform of historic Jerusalem. Whoever is allowing this city with a wall to slide down into the valley is making a mistake. You are destroying the classic gate between the city and the outside.”     

The authorities respond

Israel Antiquities Authority: In regard to the square at the spring, the IAA carried out excavations at the site to rescue antiquities before the construction plan [sic]. The excavations uncovered water systems that are dated to the Mamluk Period and fragmentary remains that are earlier. The IAA made construction at the site conditional on the covering of the findings so that they would not be destroyed, and this was done: the findings were covered and the construction was carried out above them.

As for the building of the structure as such, the IAA’s position that it would have been preferable not to build it − certainly not according to the current plan − was presented on various occasions. The allegation that the IAA concealed documents is groundless, and meetings were held with the residents’ representatives all along, including with the participation of the director of the IAA.

In regard to the construction on the upper part of the Ein Karem valley, that area is located on the slopes of Kiryat Menahem. Rescue digs were carried out at the site, which turned up only meager finds. A number of archaeological excavations were carried out in Ein Karem in the past. The most important of these were conducted by the Franciscans in the compound of the Church of St. John the Baptist and at the Church of the Visitation. Over the years, a number of rescue digs were carried out in Ein Karem as preconditions for construction, such as in the area of the parking lot and in the Ministry of Tourism building next to the spring. Ein Karem is indeed saturated with antiquities, but that is also the situation in most areas of the city of Jerusalem. The IAA will welcome and encourage academic initiatives to carry out excavations at the site. It should be borne in mind that archaeological excavations for the purpose of tourism development require large budgets and the taking of responsibility by an organization or institution to maintain the sites for the coming generations.

Jerusalem Municipality: The Jerusalem Municipality is holding joint meetings of coordination with the new committee in the Ein Karem neighborhood, and with full transparency. Today, the municipality sees the solution to the problems on the agenda eye to eye with the residents and the sides are continuing to hold ongoing discussions in regard to the preservation of the neighborhood.

Jerusalem Development Authority: The bicycle trail in Motza was built in accordance with an approved urban building plan. When a deviation from the plan was discovered, a directive was issued to remove the asphalt and to adjust the path to make it conform to the approved plan, and this was done.

Tourism Ministry: The Tourism Ministry and the Government Tourist Corporation operated and are operating according to the law and according to the approved plan for the site. The Ministry of Tourism’s plan includes the building of a square opposite the spring − which also overlooks the valley − in which tourist groups can gather safely. Owing to the terrain, the building of the square created a lower space. Here it was decided to build public toilets for the welfare of the tourists − a facility that is urgently needed in the area. In the past, the possibility of building a complex of toilets in the area of the parking lot for buses was examined, but was rejected for planning reasons. In any case, they would not be a substitute for the building of toilets in the area of the spring, which is bustling with tourists. It is clear that, as with every tourist area which enjoys a very large number of tourists, a tourism infrastructure is needed, which includes a place where the tourists can relieve themselves. From the planning standpoint, it is natural and correct for that place to be adjacent to the concentration of tourists and not at some distance away.

Despite the claims, the building of the square and the toilets does not entail any destruction or harm of any kind to what is known as the “archaeological park.” The archaeological finds, including the cisterns, were uncovered and examined by the Israel Antiquities Authority. The development of these findings into an archaeological park was deferred at this stage by the Ministry of Tourism, in full coordination with the IAA, owing to budgetary constraints and because of a limited interest accruing to the finds. At the same time, we wish to emphasize that if a decision is made in the future to develop an archaeological park, the meeting square and the toilets will not constitute an obstacle of any sort to that development.

Ministry of Defense: The Beit Zayit base is needed by the defense establishment for various purposes, including purposes of future deployment. For these reasons, the establishment of the facility cannot be permitted in the territory of the base, apart from areas which were approved for this purpose by the Ministry of Defense.

Ein Karem. A fragile biblical landscape under threat.Credit: Haim Taragan
Map of Ein Karem.
Future shock. Bulldozers at work on a road to a planned new neighborhood in Ein Karem.
Legal tangle. The partially demolished restaurant site in the heart of the village.
Ron Havilio, leader of the residents’ struggle to preserve the neighborhood.
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Future shock. Bulldozers at work on a road to a planned new neighborhood in Ein Karem.Credit: Emil Salman
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Legal tangle. The partially demolished restaurant site in the heart of the village.Credit: Emil Salman
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Ron Havilio, leader of the residents’ struggle to preserve the neighborhood.Credit: Emil Salman