Defense Ministry Threatens to Pave Paradise, Put Up an Army College in Jerusalem's Ein Karem

Locals are used to fighting real estate developers, but this time it’s the Israeli army ■ The plan calls for a complex covering 10 acres of open land

Ein Karem, Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

“On the northern outskirts of Jerusalem, just 10 minutes from the city center, lies the magical village of Ein Karem, one of the top weekend destinations for locals and tourists looking to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and indulge in gorgeous nature, history and delectable dining experiences.”

This is how the neighborhood is described in the city’s official tourism website ITravelJerusalem, which is maintained by city hall, the Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry, the Ministry of Tourism and the Jerusalem Development Authority. They take pride in their affinity to the old village.

However, Ein Karem’s pastoral atmosphere has come under threat by a plan to move Israel Defense Force training colleges to the area from Tel Aviv. The plan, which was approved by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee in February, calls for a complex covering 10 acres of open land, with permits to build on 807,000 square feet. In addition, 430,000 square feet of underground construction was approved, half of it for parking and the rest for “classified use by the IDF and the Ministry of Defense under emergency conditions.”

The plan met with resistance from the outset, but only at this stage, when objections were filed, did residents realize its full extent and allocation of underground space to defense-related purposes. Last week neighborhood residents filed a petition opposing it.

The colleges are to be sited on a wooded hill, close to the Swedish Village in the Ein Kerem basin. According to the municipal building plan, the land is designated for educational institutions, a rare item in the hodgepodge of crowded neighborhoods near Ein Karem, or in Jerusalem generally, where land for development is scarce. But residents say it will expropriate one of the most beautiful areas in the village used by the public.

For the hard core of Ein Karem’s residents, an affluent group, this is not the first time they have embarked on a campaign against development. For years they’ve sought to block any bulldozer that threatens to harm the character of their picturesque neighborhood or change its atmosphere.

In conversation they reject, almost scornfully, any claim that their campaigns are tinged with a “not-in-my-back-yard” attitude. They view the plan, which will include expansive lawns and spacious buildings, as a slap in their faces. They are backed by environmentalist groups, but nature protection activists say that ecology is not the main issue here.

“This is a plan that’s advancing the interests of an elite group,” says Avraham Shaked, coordinator of protection of nature at the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel’s Jerusalem District, referring to the army.

The society has filed the petition against the plan, as well as an appeal against its approval by the National Planning and Building Council.

“It’s not an environmental issue as much as a shocking social scandal that shows contempt for residents while depriving the public of its rights, for the benefit of creating a status symbol for the IDF and the Defense Ministry. Adjacent neighborhoods such as Ir Ganim, Kiryat Menachem and Kiryat Yovel are becoming insanely overcrowded, with more to come, and residents are screwed because the state does not invest in renovating these neighborhoods, preferring a showcase project for the army.”

Church of the Visitation in Jerusalem's Ein Karem.
Emil Salman

Activist: ‘IDF colleges behaving tyrannically’

Shaked asserts that the government’s priorities are unreasonable. “IDF officers will come to this campus for two years at most, enjoying privileged conditions, while residents will be faced with concrete monstrosities. Children will study in schools located in 60-story towers only because the IDF wants to? With all due respect to the IDF, and there’s plenty, it’s illogical for the state to approve the building of this enclave, which seems to bypass planning conceptions that apply everywhere else in the country. These colleges have no significance or contribution to make to this neighborhood. IDF colleges are behaving tyrannically towards a city that’s cruelly overcrowded.”

Joining Shaked in his appeal, which was filed on April 11, are Ofer Berkovitch, head of the opposition in the Jerusalem City Council, and Niv Wiesel, who represents the Mateh Yehuda regional council at SPNI. They claim that satisfactory alternatives were proposed, including construction on French Hill or Mount Scopus, which would not harm Ein Karem’s unique landscape, allowing taller buildings that would affect open areas to a lesser extent.

The petition is expected to be heard in July. The neighborhood committee added its own procedural appeal, filed at the District Court in Jerusalem by attorneys Yuval Galon and Shelly Lev-Sherman from the Shavit, Bar-On, Gal-On, Tzin, Witkon law offices. The petition relates to the regional committee’s decision not to allow residents to file an appeal against the plan.

Residents turned to the court in 2018, before the plan was officially submitted and starting to go through the usual process. They argued that it was unreasonable that the plan was advanced at the regional committee without having been discussed and approved by the local one. This was done even though the plan related to areas that are under the jurisdiction of the municipality.

The attorneys claimed that the decision was tainted with considerations that preferred the interests of national bodies over those of Jerusalem residents. The court rejected the petition, arguing that the plaintiffs could participate in the objection phase at the regional planning level, but now that Shaked and his associates have filed an appeal, residents want to join.

The current appeal raises a new argument, according to which only in the objection phase did it become clear that the IDF was planning to make operational use of the underground sections. “The colleges became a cover for an operational installation covering 22,000 square feet underground” say residents in their appeal.

Roy Sher, an Ein Kerem resident who is leading the campaign, says that “after months in which we participated in discussions about the plan, only during the objection phase did we learn that the plan is different than what we knew the whole time. They expect us to accept that an emergency facility will be built here, an underground war room, which will most certainly affect our lives as residents.”

Following a discussion of these objections and in order to obscure the classified underground facility, representatives of the defense ministry convened a committee that deals with defense-related facilities, “in order to get some indication and details from the army,” said the regional committee’s legal counsel. Residents claim that this committee is just a rubber stamp. It deals with classified locations, and its members and minutes are classified, and it decides on facilities whose details remain under wraps.

Mayor Moshe Leon changes his spots

Ein Karem.
Emil Salman

More importantly, the designated underground area has grown significantly in size in comparison to earlier plans which intended to build these colleges in other locations. Residents claim that only when the plan was filed did they find out that the complex, originally intended for 500 soldiers, would now serve more than 1,100. Sources at the Planning Authority and the Jerusalem Development Authority say that the underground war room was not a surprise but part of the plan. People in the know say that the underground structures are intended to be used as offices in times of emergency.

“Is it proper to place a classified military facility in a residential area, especially in one that is a major tourist attraction?” the petition asks. “Is it proper that the area be given for free to the defense establishment instead of serving the entire public, at a time when many camps and infrastructure are moving to the Negev?” In fact, opposition to setting up colleges in Ein Kerem was expressed by most mayoral candidates during the last local elections, including by the elected mayor, Moshe Leon, before he assumed office last October.

Many local politicians spoke out against former mayor Nir Barkat, who enabled the plan to proceed. They appeared before the regional planning committee during debates around the filing of the plan to voice their opposition. Leon voted against the plan at a council meeting held before the election, and was quoted in local papers as saying that the plan for relocating to Mount Scopus should be re-examined.

It now seems that he’s changed his perspective. Upon assuming office, he changed his position and withdrew his support for the residents of Ein Karem. It now appears that they are left with almost no political support, and it seems that cash-laden planning bodies are united in believing that the plan is not a local issue, but a move that’s of national importance, fortifying the city’s status as Israel’s capital, an act having symbolic and declarative value.

The municipality says that “the mayor supports and encourages building of IDF colleges in the Ein Kerem area. Some alternatives were examined and rejected by professional committees, and the only remaining option is Ein Karem.”

The IDF spokesman said that “the plan for constructing these colleges is important for national reasons. Charges raised in this story were rejected by the regional planning and building committee when it approved the plan. The approval was preceded by meetings with the public, in which all the relevant unclassified information was presented. The defense establishment will relate to all claims when it discusses the appeal.”

The decision of the Planning Authority notes that “the presence of the colleges will not threaten the character of Ein Karem as a tourist attraction. The committee calls on the presenters of the plan to initiate and enable community and social activity between the colleges and the residents of neighborhoods around the colleges, in order to create an affinity between the community and these colleges.”

A senior official in the Jerusalem municipality explains that the combative attitude of Ein Karem residents has left them alone in this campaign. “Residents are protecting their touristic-historic-real estate gem, which is fine. But their militant approach has been detrimental, distancing politicians from their cause. They wage world wars every time someone comes close, even if it’s to help them.”

According to Sher, “This historic neighborhood is subject to the changing whims of politicians and developers. This is possible because there is no updated building plan for the neighborhood and there is no binding document which ensures that Ein Kerem isn’t filled with buildings and developers. We stand on guard and protect its unique pastoral nature, which brings millions of tourists a year here. But the state, the city and planning bodies must take responsibility and ensure Ein Karem’s status, considering more than financial aspects.”

Thanks, UNESCO, but no thanks

In 2015, the Israeli UNESCO committee added Ein Karem and the surrounding hills to a list of proposed sites to be declared world heritage sites. However, the municipality did not abide by UNESCO’s terms, which called for declaring the area a heritage site, and this has not happened to this day. The pretext, at least until 2017, when Netanyahu decided to withdraw from UNESCO in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal, was UNESCO’s demand for meticulous preservation of nature, landscape and heritage in the area. Such a decision would have obliged the city to avoid launching any development projects in the Ein Karem basin.

Senior officials at the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Planning Authority admit that there is no current plan to anchor Ein Karem’s status or define it, or limit construction. It seems that the current policy is to say no to any plan for construction in the middle of the neighborhood, and that for years there has been an agreement that no such construction will take place, so as to preserve its present fabric.

This is similar to a policy relating to an old neighborhood of Tel Aviv. But residents are wary of the vagueness and uncertainty. They demand that the neighborhood’s status and rules for its preservation be set in law. The municipality said in response that “Ein Karem is included in plans for the city’s southwest, which determine its future development. Israel withdrew from UNESCO together with the U.S. for political reasons, so that a plan for recognizing Ein Karem as a heritage site is not being advanced.”