Ein Karem Under Threat

Grandiose development plans may destroy the bucolic landscape and lifestyle in the village near Jerusalem

Noam Dvir
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Noam Dvir

The road leading to the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem on the southwestern outskirts of Jerusalem runs past extinct land of Israel landscapes and holy sites. The unique connection between the biblical scenery, Christian heritage and architecture of a nearly flawlessly preserved Arab village attracts about three million visitors a year - one-third of them pilgrims from around the world.

Ein Karem’s unique topography and location spared the village from building plans for decades.Credit: Yuval Tebol

Visitors usually stop at Mary's Well, where according to Christian tradition Jesus's mother met Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, when both women bore the children in their wombs. Across from the spring visitors have a view of the green valley documented in the paintings of Reuben Rubin, with its traces of ancient agricultural terracing. The picturesque slopes and steeples of the churches and monasteries, seven in total, also attracted Israeli artists like Mordechai Ardon and Nahum Gutman, who sought and found a virginal romantic Jerusalem landscape.

On a hot day in mid-August, with the temperatures climbing to 40 degrees Celsius, the trip to Ein Karem is somewhat less pastoral. Scores of tourist buses pull up, and in the absence of sufficient parking spots they stand in a long line along the narrow Hama'ayan Street, where the well is located. The noise and soot they emit is augmented by the traffic on the road leading up to Jerusalem. The police forbids vehicles weighing more than four tons - but who cares? Sitting in a cafe on the village's main thoroughfare is more like being in the din of Tel Aviv than the quiet soundtrack of a Jerusalemite village.

In an attempt to slightly improve the tourism infrastructure in the village, two years ago the Tourism Ministry built a small service building with toilets adjacent to the spring. They told residents then that a kiosk would be erected "which would see to cleanliness" - so the tourists would stop using the yards of neighboring homes when nature called. However, in actuality the building ballooned to more than 300 square meters.

During the construction, traces of water systems from the Mamluke and Byzantine periods were found there. Local residents wanted to reconstruct and restore them for use, but the Tourism Ministry said there was no budget and instead spent another NIS 1 million to cover the finds.

Now the residents are concerned the service building will ultimately be used for other purposes. "They have built a Golem here in the middle of the village," says Pnina Ein-Mor, a public activist for Ein Karem's preservation. "In a few years it could become a wedding hall or a shopping mall or a parking facility."

This week the Jerusalem municipality's legal advisor ordered an immediate cessation of the construction.

The mystery surrounding the building at the spring is just one symptom of the problematic conduct regarding the village in recent decades. Ein Karem is one of the four most important pilgrimage sites in Israel, and an application is currently being considered for UNESCO to declare the village a World Heritage Site. However, the tremendous tourism and economic potential could be harmed by various construction plans touted by private developers and the Israel Lands Administration.

Swimming pools and electric gates

Part of the building work near Mary’s Well (below) halted by Jerusalem municipality this week, following residents’ objections.Credit: Yuval Tebol

Ein Karem's unique location for many years spared the village from an excess of building plans. The slopes of the surrounding hills have remained relatively undeveloped, apart from the nearby Hadassah University Hospital campus that was built at the start of the 1960s. Today, however, hardly a plot in the Ein Karem scenic basin is not threatened by building plans.

This is precisely the root of the problem: In order to preserve the landscape, the adjacent slopes must be kept relatively free of construction - nearly impossible in a densely populated country, and especially in the Jerusalem area.

About a decade ago, exhausted by repeated battles against the authorities, Ein Karem residents initiated an independent master plan for the village, designed by architects Peter Bugod and Philip Brandeis. The plan contained, for the first time, a definition of Ein Karem as an entire visual basin including the surrounding landscape. The plan envisaged new development for tourism needs only, and physical separation from the city. The residents created a precedent when the regional planning and building committee agreed to adopt extensive parts of the plan.

What in the end prevented its approval was a damages order that would have obligated the residents to compensate every individual or developer who could prove he had been harmed by the plan. Ultimately, the plan faded away and the out-of-pocket money the residents had invested went down the drain.

Now the ILA is planning to sell 72 plots intended for private homes in several parts of the village. Part A of the plan - a total of 30 houses - has already been implemented in the eastern part of the village. The construction was accompanied by a clear set of regulations including design instructions, but according to Ein-Mor not a single one of the houses conforms with the code. "If they told them to plan cornices and chimneys, then instead there are swimming pools and electric gates. There is no connection between them and the traditional construction," she says.

Some of the houses are slated for one of the most sensitive parts of the village, where the view of natural woodland and church spires will mingle with solar panels and antennae on the houses' roofs. The Tourism Ministry and Jerusalem municipality are also promoting the spring building and adjacent 45-room hotel.

Filmmaker Ron Havilio, a village resident, explains that the most problematic part of the plan is the shortage of parking spaces. "On busy days the whole village is under siege. On Hama'ayan Street now there are 1,000 seats in restaurants and cafes, and in the new hotel another 500 seats are planned for a restaurant and events hall. Do you know how many regulated parking spots there are in Ein Karem? A total of 69."

In addition, a large high-density construction project is planned for the Carmit boarding school compound at the eastern edge of the village, where developers want to put up 18-story apartment blocks. Adjacent to them the ILA is planning another high-density project of 54 units in terraced buildings.

The eastern area, between the village and Kiryat Hayovel, is less sensitive with regard to the landscape, but the tall apartment blocks will be visible from nearly everywhere in the village. The accelerated development at Hadassah Hospital could also harm the view - the new wing going up there will rise to 18 stories with a helicopter landing-pad on its roof. A municipal light rail line slated to connect the institution to the city will pass above the five golden domes of the Moskovia monastery.

The spring is irrigating the sewage

Ein Karem.Credit: Yuval Tebol

Ein-Mor and Havilio came to the village in the 1970s, in a period when young couples and students were looking for inexpensive housing alternatives outside the center of Jerusalem. The place was inhabited by immigrants from Morocco, Yemen and Romania who had settled there after the Palestinian inhabitants fled from their homes during the War of Independence. For many years the village was not considered attractive because of its distance from Jerusalem and proximity to the border. However, in the 1980s and 1990s an affluent population started to move in and today it has 2,000 inhabitants.

This is a classic case of preservation versus development - the residents want to stop development while the authorities want to exploit the surrounding open areas for construction. Their dream is to develop Ein Karem as a eco-tourism village without large hotels and heavy tourism infrastructures.

Despite the sympathy for the protest, halting the development also expresses a clear economic interest in maintaining the soaring real estate values of the residents' houses. The uniqueness of the village lies not only in the landscape and the holy sites, but also in the vernacular architecture ("architecture without architects" ) that has been preserved there. This is one of the largest concentrations of Palestinian village construction in Israel and the West Bank.

Under British Mandate plans it was designated for preservation along with the villages of Lifta, al-Malkha and Deir Yassin, all of which have since been destroyed.

"Ein Karem is an opportunity - for Jerusalem and for the state. But we have systematically missed this opportunity during the past 50 years," says Jerusalem's deputy mayor Naomi Tsur. "No one other than the residents has looked at Ein Karem as a whole. No one has thought about trying to translate its uniqueness into economic benefit for the city."

Tsur, who holds the building, preservation and environment portfolio in the municipality, easily identifies the specific and general problems of the village. "There are grandiose ILA plans but also problems with the signposting, the volume of traffic and the polluted spring that is irrigating sewage instead of the wadi."

How does the municipality let those plans advance? You are, after all, represented on all the planning committees.

"Today we are acting differently from the way the previous administrations did. We are leading a process of comprehensive planning for the southwestern part of the city, including a large section of Ein Karem. It's impossible to prevent all the development, but it can be integrated into the scenic basin. I think Ein Karem is the jewel in the crown and it has a much better future."

Despite the determined words it is clear development is still threatening the village. Even in a hypothetical situation in which the municipality succeeds in preventing all the construction surrounding Ein Karem, it will above all have to be very careful about its own actions within the village, formulate a clear preservation policy and invest large amounts in the infrastructures needed in the public space.

The ILA sent this response: "The outline plan for Ein Karem stipulates it is possible to add approximately 1,020 plots for construction in various areas of the village. The ILA is acting to prepare five urban construction plans for the village so it will be possible, in accordance with what is stipulated by law, to issue building permits in the village. Moreover, land registration is underway, defining division into lots and sub-lots in the village - an action required for land registration. The ILA is acting in accordance with the Jerusalem municipality's city engineer department on coordinating the proposed planning, with the action committee representing the village residents, and with preservation consultants."



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