Housing Plan Would Pave Over Jerusalem Neighborhood's Last Patch of Green Space

New plan to bring 1,700 housing units to Mitzpeh Naftoah as part of an effort to address the crisis of affordable housing in Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem regional master plan, which was approved last week, is threatening to smother in concrete one of the last patches of forest in the city.

Construction on the Mitzpeh Naftoah hill in the northern part of the city has been the focus of a years'-long dispute between residents of the adjacent Ramot neighborhood and project developers. According to the new plan, Mitzpeh Naftoah will contain 1,700 housing units, as part of an effort to address the crisis of affordable housing in Jerusalem. The threat to this area was augmented when environmental groups scored a victory - after planners and builders backed down - and thwarted implementation of the so-called Safdie plan, involving construction in the western part of the city.

Deers in Mitzpeh Naftoah in 2005.
Alex Gipman

According to residents in the vicinity of Mitzpeh Naftoah, development proceedings have been faulty and the master plan was approved without the consultation of the Jewish National Fund, which owns the land.

"This is the last patch of green in a neighborhood that is home to more than 40,000 residents," says Rachel Adam, from the Ramot for the Environment ecological group. "This is not a neighborhood, but a city, and residents have no other place to go for nature walks. Today in Ramot there are three square meters of green land per resident, in contrast to international standards requiring seven per capita," she adds.

A photography exhibition that is designed to explain the dangers and repercussions of construction in Mitzpeh Naftoah will open tomorrow at the Jerusalem Theater. The images on display will offer a glimpse of the wide variety of animal life in the area, including a herd of gazelle, along with foxes, porcupines and hyena.

Ten days ago Haaretz reported that the Jerusalem municipality and Israel Nature and Parks Authority have begun to develop what is supposed to be the country's largest municipal park in Emek Ha'arazim, not far from Mitzpeh Naftoah. According to the ecological activists, however, that park - like Jerusalem's main city parks - is not a relevant option for Ramot residents, most of whom do not own cars or are religious and observe Shabbat.

Says Adam: "That park is designated for a host of other activities; it is not open land. In the meantime, we see roads being paved as well as railway construction [i.e., of the new train line between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem]. The gazelles are coming closer and closer to Ramot to escape the construction work. Construction in Mitzpeh Naftoah will endanger a population of 50 gazelles in a country whose loss in terms of biological diversity is markedly greater than in other parts of the world, according to the OECD."

Despite the fact that local activists have been able to limit to some extent the area designated for construction under the new master plan, and to prevent the top of the hill from being touched, they have no intention of backing down. According to them, there are enough building reserves within the city for the coming decades and no need to further encroach on remaining open spaces.

"Regardless of the Safdie plan, Mitzpeh Naftoah should be the last place for construction as opposed to the first," says attorney Benjamin Hyman, who represents the activists. Although approved by the government, the construction plan is due to be reopened for debate in the coming weeks following objections by a number of ministers.