The Ein Hanya Spring: A Charming, Spruced-up Jerusalem Spot Free of Palestinians

The lovely spring, which is 300 feet over the green line, has undergone a 14 million shekel face-lift- but a fence and roadblock will cut off Palestinian villagers' access, who have frequented the site for centuries

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The Ein Hanya spring outside Jerusalem.
The Ein Hanya spring outside Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

“When we arrived here there was an old man sitting under his fig tree, and shepherds would come to water their flocks – the place was enchanted. It was like a focal point of activities in the area. Our intention was to tidy it up a bit and then leave, as if we'd never been here,” recalls landscape architect Iris Tal, who was charged with upgrading the area surrounding Ein Hanya, the second-largest spring in the Judean Hills.

But Tal's good intentions are now clashing with local politics. After 3,000 years in which the spring was open to and frequented by local Jews, Christians and Muslims, the Jerusalem Municipality is planning to set up a roadblock nearby which will prevent thousands of residents from the adjacent Palestinian villages of al-Walaja and Battir and environs from reaching the site. The villagers, who used spring for recreational purposes also depended on its water for their livestock, are unable now to get to the pool itself; it was fenced off after renovation work began in mid-2016. The battle over the roadblock plan is currently being fought in a Jerusalem court.

The planning of the Ein Hanya site, which is part of the greater Jerusalem Park, started over a decade ago. In addition to the Jerusalem Development Authority, other organizations involved include the Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry, now headed by Zeev Elkin, the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jewish National Fund, the Israel Antiquities Authority, and the Nature and Parks Authority (which is supposed to manage the site). The cost of sprucing up the spring was to be about 14 million shekels ($4.08 million), out of a total of 240 million shekels allocated for the entire Jerusalem Park.

>> Who Really Built Jerusalem's Historic Terraces? <<

Among other things, the planners originally took into account some of the ancient agricultural terraces near the spring: Some have been restored, others were dismantled and then reassembled, and some were left as they were, with a few retaining walls added. The pathways created there are made out of a mixture of concrete and a local aggregate, which gives them a natural look. Many fruit trees have been planted on the premises, including fig, almond and olive trees. At the entrance are three old structures slated for preservation, which will eventually serve as a visitors center, a restaurant and washrooms, as well as a site for learning about organic agriculture.

The Ein Hanya spring outside Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

Ein Hanya is paradise for archaeology buffs. Indeed, excavators have been drawn to the site since the end of the 19th century. One article, by Dr. Yuval Baruch and Irina Zilberbod, of the IAA, surveys ceramic vessels and shards dating to the Iron Age (12th to 7th centuries B.C.E.) and unearthed at the site. A Second Temple-era silver coin was also found there, minted in Ashdod between 420 and 390 B.C.E. Also abutting the spring is a Byzantine church, two pools for collecting water ־ part of an ancient, elaborate irrigation system that begins in the cave in which the spring erupts, passing through an arched structure – and a nympheon, a ritual structure from the Roman period that has been preserved to the tune of tens of thousands of shekels. According to Christian tradition, this site is where the apostle Philip baptized the first Ethiopian.

Not an 'engineered' park

Ein Hanya is one of a several springs being upgraded in this area. At Ein Lavan, for example, the pools have been renovated and rebuilt, a water tunnel was cleaned up, terraces have been rebuilt, trees have been planted and a parking lot was built at the site, which is now accessible to the disabled, with improved access roads. Ein Lavan can be seen from Ein Hanya thanks to the Israeli flags flying there – lest we forget where we are.

But Ein Hanya is different than most of what are sometimes called the "engineered" parts of Jerusalem Park that have already been developed. There are no picnic tables or man-made structures providing shade there.

“There are no garbage bins either,” notes architect Tal, something she says she insisted on. The only man-made elements on the premises for now are information and warning signs, most of which are ugly, sticking out of the almost pristine surroundings, as well as safety railings.

The Ein Hanya spring outside Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

“Too bad we had to put those up – they absolve people of any responsibility,” she adds.

Tal hopes that the new planning and security regulations won’t affect the site’s charm: “I am afraid that its usage will change, and that raises a big question regarding the issue of how our planning has affected the site.”

If you had been told in advance that Palestinians would not be allowed in, would you still have planned it?

“That’s a tough one. We knew that the spring was within the 1967 borders and the charm of the place was in the human mix around the pool,” she says, referring to the range of locals and visitors frequenting the site. “I don’t know what I would have done. It makes me feel pangs of conscience – the fact that we touched it and this is what happened [i.e., the plan for the roadblock – N.R.]. I don’t know how to answer you. That’s the truth.”

Later in our conversation, Tal will say that on second thought, she would not have participated in the planning had she known that Palestinians would eventually be excluded at Ein Hanya.

The compound there is 100 meters (328 feet) away from the Green Line, on the Israeli side, but 1,200 dunams (300 acres) surrounding it, within the bounds of the Jerusalem Park, are on land that belongs to the Palestinian Authority.

Despite recent claims by planners and architects that they did not know about the intention to bar Palestinians from the site, two things happened during the development process that has made it Ein Hanya inaccessible to them. First, the fence was erected around the site, ostensibly to protect the antiquities during the work there. But the parks authority says the fence will stay since the site contains rare relics.

The question then arose as to why Ein Lavan was not fenced in, and why the fence at Ein Hanya remained after the work was mostly completed. The parks authority says that the fence is unrelated to the roadblock, and was not built to keep Palestinians out, even if that is the result. Despite this claim, during the renovation and restoration process at the spring, the police did not allow the site to be open for security reasons, since no roadblock was in place.

In practice, the fence and roadblock will prevent Palestinians from coming on foot or by car from Palestinian territory to the spring.

Regarding the roadblock, and despite the state’s claim that it is necessary for security reasons, the permit allowing it to be constructed was issued by the Jerusalem District planner Shira Talmi – who had no authority to do so. Residents of the two Palestinian villages argue are arguing that the roadblock violates their rights and contradicts international law. Their case will be decided in the Jerusalem District Court.

The Ein Hanya spring outside Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

In general, Ein Yanya has undergone relatively little architectural intervention and the question is how Jerusalemites will react to it when they are permitted to visit.

“The site will see thousands of visitors over the summer,” predicts David Uziel, planning director at the Jerusalem Development Authority. “As a metropolitan park the Jerusalem Park offers a variety of activities in each of its sections. Some are characterized by intensive-modern development with cultural and heritage-related emphases, involving exposure of ancient landscapes. Visitors at Ein Hanya can expect a different kind of experience – there are no facilities for children, it is meant mainly for nature lovers or for people looking for a refreshing pool on a blazing-hot summer day.”

The dedication was held in January but it’s still unclear when the site will open. The JDA had hoped that it would happen during Passover but the Nature and Parks Authority seems to be delaying the event until this summer.

A green ring

The Jerusalem Park has been under construction for the last 15 years. As exemplified in its logo, and described on its website, it is “a green ring for a golden city.” The project boasts four sections: Tzofim in the northeast, Arazim Valley in the north, Motza in the west (where work has not started yet), and Refaim Valley in the south, which includes Ein Hanya.

The Ein Hanya spring outside Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

“The British dreamt about it and we’re implementing it,” says Uziel. “They had an idea of surrounding Jerusalem with a green ring. The idea for this park started with the Safdie plan for expanding Jerusalem westward. The concept was to build along the ridges, with the valleys remaining as parks. One of the central aims in planning the park is to connect it to surrounding neighborhoods.”

Beneath Ein Hanya lies the Refaim Valley streambed, some of which has already been upgraded and cleaned up, but there is still more work to do there. A bike path and a pedestrian walkway are planned as ways of accessing Ein Hanya. The streambed, planned by Minad Architects, stretches between the train stations at Malha and the Tisch Family Biblical Zoo.

The Refaim Valley Park features a promenade, bike routes, pedestrian paths and rest and recreation areas. There are also children’s play areas and sports facilities, parking lots and wide grassy areas for holding gatherings. The design is subtle and not strident, allowing one to walk for several kilometers.

According to landscape architect Shlomi Zeevi, “there is a part of the park that is built up and has urban uses, but as you move away from the city, the intensity of urban usage subsides. The idea is that you will go on an outing. If I had to compare it to another city I’d choose Philadelphia. The more you move away from the city, the further you get to open areas and riverbeds.”

The importance of the entire project, he adds, "is not related to left or right, Arabs or Jews. This is a park that defines where there is construction and where there isn’t. There was a neighborhood planned in the past, close to Ein Hanya, but the scheme was abandoned. One of the achievements of the Jerusalem Park is that it ensures ecological continuity with no construction, providing wide-open spaces for relaxation and recreation in a metropolis of one million people.”

The Ein Hanya spring outside Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

From a design perspective, how is a park in Jerusalem different than one in Tel Aviv?

Zeevi: “I don’t think a park has to be saddled with an entire cultural burden, especially in Jerusalem. Just as one plans an exhibition hall but leaves it empty, before the paintings and statues are brought in [by others], that’s how a park should be planned in Jerusalem. People will decide what to make of it. There are so many languages and forms here, and sounds. And yes, we used stone, but that was mainly to link it to a geographical and universal context.”

But Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for the Ir Amim not-for-profit group, which deals with various issues in Jerusalem within the complicated and fraught context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has another opinion. He says that parts of the Jerusalem Park, particularly the project at Ein Hanya, are being exploited as a means of converting Palestinian areas of the city into Israeli ones.

The Ein Hanya spring outside Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

“The landscape, heritage and tourism [improvements] are being presented innocently, but they create a situation where the owners of the land and the Palestinian community are prevented from access. It’s particularly upsetting with the roadblock near Ein Hanya," Tatarsky explains.

He notes that until 1948, under both Turkish and British rule, Ein Hanya and the area around it were clearly the property of al-Walaja, as can be seen in old maps. Now the new roadblock and fence will prevent its residents and other Palestinians from accessing the spring as well as the entire expanse of 300 acres surrounding it.

"The Israeli authorities aren’t even hiding the fact that the site is for Israeli residents only, whereas the farmers who built and preserved the terraces – which are the pretext for building the park there – are being removed from the area," says Tatarsky. "The park also creates continuity between Jerusalem and the Etzion Bloc [of Jewish settlements], turning al-Walaja into an enclave, isolated and threatened.”

The Ein Hanya spring outside Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

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