Israel Working to Build New ultra-Orthodox Neighborhood on Jerusalem Forest Land

City engineer to oppose plans that critics say will majorly damage forest

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Jerusalem Forest, November 26, 2018.
Jerusalem Forest, November 26, 2018.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The Jerusalem city engineer will oppose plans to build a new ultra-Orthodox neighborhood on land that is part of the Jerusalem Forest.

The project promoted by the Israel Land Authority would be an extension of the Har Nof neighborhood on the city’s western edge, and calls for 2,300 housing units to be built on 648 dunams (162 acres) of land. Critics of the plan say that it would inflict major damage on the forest and split it in two.

The initiative by the ILA, a government body, is still in the preliminary planning stages and runs counter to several existing plans. Recently, the Jewish National Fund – which originally planted the forest in the 1950s, and develops and maintains it – came to an agreement with the Transportation Ministry about a project aimed at preserving the forest and making trails through it accessible to hikers and cyclists.

One source involved in the planning says that if the ILA proposal is approved, many existing and future plans to develop the forest be “thrown into the garbage.”

Approval for creation of the new neighborhood would be handled by means of the fast-track process that has been put in place to boost the country’s housing inventory in counter rising prices. In the past, the Jerusalem Municipality has been adamantly opposed to using such an expedited process.

An ILA documented publicized last week states that the Jerusalem Forest project is designed “to increase the reserve of housing units for the ultra-Orthodox community,” and adds, “The plan’s major advantage is the fact that the increased [housing] inventory would be created in close proximity to the edge of an existing ultra-Orthodox neighborhood: Har Nof. Another significant advantage would be removal of an existing environmental and safety hazard at the site, the Pi Glilot fuel depot.”

An aerial image shows the proposed location of the new neighborhood in Jerusalem.Credit: Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel

The heart of the new neighborhood would indeed located on the site of the depot, which the Israel Planning Administration and the municipality have been planning to remove for years. Most of the new community would straddle the Revida Stream, one of two streams running through Jerusalem Forest. It would be built on a wooded slope abutting the Beit Hakerem and Yefe Nof neighborhoods, and below the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance complex.

Professionals involved in the proposed scheme have written that the forest in these areas does not constitute a natural landscape “of high value” – a claim that has outraged at least one forestry expert.

“That is a ridiculous explanation. It’s one of West Jerusalem’s most important ecological axes. What’s important is the connection between the open spaces and a functioning ecological system,” said the forester, who asked not to be identified. “There are pines there. There are broad-leaved trees, natural brush and olive groves. Why is it important if there are less attractive trees there? It’s the axis that links the two parts of the wooded space, without which the Jerusalem Forest is two separate groves.”

Originally the Jerusalem Forest spread over an area of over 6,000 dunams, but portions of it have been eaten away over the years by expanding residential neighborhoods, new infrastructure facilities, cemeteries, etc. Today only one-third of the original wooded area remains.

The forest consists of two main expanses: a northern ring, bordering the Har Nof neighborhood and running between it and Moshav Beit Zayit, and a southern section abutting Beit Hakerem and the Mount Herzl national cemetery. The proposed project would effectively sever the area connecting those two rings, which would be catastrophic for the forest, according to environmental activists.

In recent years, area residents and environmental groups have waged a battle to save and preserve the Jerusalem Forest. However, that battle has been unsuccessful with regard to Route 16, which is being paved between Motza and the Shaare Zedek Medical Center – part of it via an underground tunnel, under the forest. Construction on the highway abuts the newly proposed neighborhood.

Jerusalem Forest, November 26, 2018.Credit: Emil Salman

Another war being waged by environmentalists, against relocation of Israel Defense Forces colleges to the Tzipori site in the Jerusalem Forest, ended with a decision by the army to move the facilities to another site at the edge of the forest, which has also sparked resistance.

In recent years, the Jerusalem Forest has suffered damage due to natural and other causes: Major fires that have consumed large portions of it, a 2013 snowstorm felled thousands of trees, and other areas have been cleared for water and natural gas facilities.

“The Jerusalem Forest is a valuable and well-tended open space that is almost sacred in the view of most of Jerusalem’s population,” says Avraham Shaked, the Jerusalem regional coordinator of the Society for the Protection of Nature. “It’s a remnant of a large forest that once surrounded Jerusalem. It must not be damaged by an unprecedented plan from a heavy-handed committee that is anti-planning and anti-democratic, and lacks professional values, and whose sole aim is to deal with Excel spreadsheets that come from the Finance Ministry and ILA.”

The Society for the Protection of Nature does not oppose removal of the Pi Pligot facility from the forest, Shaked said, but it should not be at the expense of pandering to real estate interests, as he put it. “It’s a conspiracy that is inviting a civilian world war against those who support this project.”

For its part, the Jewish National Fund said: “JNF is the entity responsible for woodlands in the State of Israel, including creating and developing them to attract members of the public, maintaining them and protecting the trees. The Jerusalem Forest is the green lungs for residents of the city, linking neighborhoods and the Jerusalem vicinity as well as the region for leisure activity".

"The forest is not zoned for development, as it has been confirmed as forested and open areas at every level of planning," it added. "JNF adamantly opposes the plan for residential construction in this area. The plan is at total variance with national, district and regional plans and conflicts with the idea for forested areas and open space surrounding Jerusalem."

The Israel Planning Administration did not respond to requests for comment, but a document obtained by Haaretz showed that the planner for the Jerusalem district, architect Shira Talmi, is strongly opposed to the plan and the anticipated damage that it would cause to the forest. The plan, she said, would cause serious damage to what she called “the limited areas of urban forest that immediately serve all of the residents of the capital.”

“The extent of the damage … is severe and powerful, even with respect to the relative portion of the forest that is being eliminated and also with respect to the forest’s function as part of the urban fabric,” she wrote in her professional opinion on the subject.

The ILA provided this response: “This is a sustainable plan that makes use of an area that has in part been breached and polluted for a long time. The plan takes into account Route 16, which will run along the southern side [of the forest] and would be adapted accordingly." The ILA stressed, "The plan does not change the purpose of the forest, which will continue to constitute a green lung and open public space for the enjoyment of the public."

"The removal of Pi Glilot has been planned for about the past decade by the ILA, without any apparent statutory progress," ILA added, "The new initiative includes creation of 2,400 housing units and a network of trails and public facilities, in proximity to the existing construction line of the Har Nof neighborhood, adapted for urban construction. The advantage of the plan is that it calls for removal of the fuel tanks at the Pi Glilot terminal, which are no longer needed, and earmarks the property for residential development and public use after the ground is cleaned.

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