Israelis Lose Fight Against IDF Colleges Outside Jerusalem Neighborhood of Ein Karem

Environmental groups and locals are claiming that the construction of a campus, right by archaeological sites and springs, damages water, views and the neighborhood's option to expand

Nir Hasson
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An illustration of what the campus will look like when construction ends.
An illustration of what the campus will look like when construction ends.Credit: Enginerring and Construction Division / Defense Ministry
Nir Hasson

The Jerusalem District Planning Committee approved Monday a plan to relocate Israel’s military colleges to just outside the capital’s Ein Karem neighborhood, over the objections of residents and environmentalists.

The calls for the construction of several five-story buildings on a hilly plot of 40 dunams (10 acres) between Ein Karem and Kiryat Menahem, in southwest Jerusalem.

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Opponents claim construction will damage the area’s water system, and particularly the flow of water into Mary’s Spring, where according to Christian tradition the mother of Jesus met with the parents of John the Baptist. They also cite harm to the landscape, noting that hundreds of mature trees will have to be felled, as well as increased traffic congestion as a result of hundreds of officers commuting to the base in private cars.

Proponents reject these claims, saying the base will be 15 meters above the rock layer that holds the water. Moreover, they say, the colleges will contribute greatly to Jerusalem’s development, and especially that of nearby neighborhoods.

Ron Havilio, an Ein Karem resident and scholar of the area, said the colleges will destroy archaeological sites, including winepresses from the First Temple era and ancient terraces.

Illustration: What the campus will look like after construction is finished.
Illustration: What the campus will look like after construction is finished.Credit: Engineering and Construction Division / Defense Ministry

It will also take land zoned for residential construction and public buildings such as schools. Already, Ein Karem is “inhumanly crowded, with 60 to 70 apartments per dunam,” charged Avraham Shaked of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

However, thousands of apartments are slated to be built in other nearby neighborhoods.

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Three of the city’s mayoral candidates — Yossi Havilio, Ofer Berkovitch and Rachel Azaria — also oppose the plan. Havilio said the site was unsuitable, as it would harm the neighborhood and historical sites. Berkovitch said he wants the colleges in Jerusalem, but they belong on Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus rather than in Ein Karem, where they will overburden the infrastructure. Azaria similarly said she wants the colleges in Jerusalem, but not in Ein Karem, since neighborhood residents need that space for public buildings.

But proponents point out that the site is zoned for development in any case, and if the colleges aren’t there, ultra-Orthodox city councilmen will likely demand that housing for their constituents be built there instead.

Ron Havilio charged that the planning agencies hadn’t considered all the alternatives, including that of canceling the plan entirely. “To this day, we don’t know why they ruled out the other alternatives,” he said.

Mary's Spring in Jerusalem, 2015.
Mary's Spring in Jerusalem, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman

The government decided to move the colleges from Glilot, north of Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem back in 1976, but the plan has stalled repeatedly. Six years ago, a plan to build the colleges on the Mount of Olives was scrapped due to the Obama administration’s opposition to any Israeli construction beyond the 1967 border.

Since then, various alternatives have been considered, including plans to put them on one of Hebrew University’s two campuses (Mount Scopus and Givat Ram) or at the Zippori Center in the Jerusalem Forest. But ultimately, the Ein Karem site was chosen.

“We’ve examined several alternatives in recent years,” said David Uziel, planning director for the Jerusalem Development Authority. “The alternative chosen ultimately provides a balanced solution for both the army and the needs of the city. The colleges will have a positive effect on the neighborhood, and we can’t drag things out with the army with endless alternatives.”

The Jerusalem municipality said it was proud to be implementing the cabinet resolution to transfer the colleges to Jerusalem and regretted that the plan’s opponents “chose to quote part of a sentence from the hydrological report and present things out of context and tendentiously to create disinformation.” It said the plan will preserve the area’s environment, and particularly its springs, “insofar as possible,” and for this purpose, “advisors from the fields of ecology, hydrology and geology were added to the planning team.”

Moreover, it noted, central Ein Karem is a preservation district “and will remain as such, due to its historical and touristic importance.” But the area allocated for the colleges isn’t part of Ein Karem and is zoned for development, not preservation.

Finally, it said, the area is easily accessible by both bus and light-rail, and once the new Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railroad opens, even officers from the center of the country will be able to commute using public transportation.