Religious and ultra-Orthodox members of Jerusalem’s city council have canceled a tender for managing the Gazelle Valley Park, thereby calling the future of the site into question.
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The park, located between the neighborhoods of Katamonim and Givat Mordechai, was inaugurated last year after a lengthy public battle against construction plans for the site. The valley is considered the largest natural urban park in Israel. It is open to all free of charge, and the city’s goal is to maintain the park in its original natural state insofar as possible.
The park’s crowning glory is a small flock of gazelles that has somehow survived in the heart of the capital. Over the past year, some 150,000 people have visited the park, especially on Shabbat, when many religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews also visit.
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel was responsible for setting up the park and managing it during its first year of existence. Recently, the Jerusalem municipality issued a tender for the job of managing the park from now on, but SPNI was the only bidder.
At a meeting of the municipality’s tenders committee last week, ultra-Orthodox councilmen and one religious Zionist, Arieh King, unexpectedly voted against approving the tender, arguing that there was no justification for approving it when there was only one bidder. The result is that currently, nobody is legally responsible for managing the park, a fact that is liable to endanger its survival.
The opposing councilmen raised various arguments against SPNI at the meeting. Among other things, they charged that Gazelle Valley T-shirts are sold at the park on Shabbat, and that SPNI plans to open cafes and souvenir shops, which would also be open on Shabbat, at the site.
But sources familiar with the issue vehemently denied these accusations. They said that not only are no T-shirts sold at the park, but SPNI opposes any commercial activity whatsoever there.
These sources speculated that the real reason for the ultra-Orthodox councilmen’s objection is that they want to change the park’s character, from a strictly natural venue to one aimed more at entertainment, including recreational and vacation facilities.
Sources in City Hall said the tender wasn’t a financially attractive one, because most of the work at the park is done by volunteers, so the annual fee offered by the city is only 500,000 shekels ($130,000).
“The ultra-Orthodox have set themselves the goal of taking over activity in Gazelle Valley,” charged Deputy Mayor Tamir Nir of the Yerushalmim faction. “The park is one of the city’s most unique places, where residents from every segment of society encounter each other as well as nature. I regret that even in this place, people are introducing sectorial considerations and, on various false and bizarre pretexts, coming out against SPNI winning the tender.”
The Jerusalem municipality stressed that the tender hasn’t been canceled. The tenders committee met to determine the tender’s winner, it said in a statement, but “Contrary to the opinion of the municipality’s legal advisor, some of the members thought that the only party to bid on the tender had a conflict of interests, and therefore, the members of the tenders committee decided not to name that party as the winner. “
The municipality will continue the tender process in accordance with the law and the municipal legal advisor’s position, the statement added.