Jerusalem Gazelles Get Guaranteed Home After a 10-year Battle

Jerusalem Council rejected the claim by two kibbutzim over the land and voted to leave it as open parkland.

Three does are all that remain of the famed herd of 25 native gazelles that once lived in Emek Ha'tzvaim ("Gazelle Valley"), in the heart of Jerusalem. But yesterday, after a public struggle lasting nearly almost a decade, the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Council gave final approval to a plan aimed at ensuring the does' future and enabling the repopulation of the herd. The council rejected the claim by two nearby kibbutzim, Ma'aleh Hahamisha and Kiryat Anavim, over the land and voted to leave it as open parkland.

The valley is the last open space in the heart of Jerusalem. The battle over its future began in 2000, when the kibbutzim submitted a plan to build a very large neighborhood there. A coalition of residents and nonprofit organizations opposed the plan, arguing that the valley should remain open parkland.

The battle at times became entangled in other, larger conflicts: For instance, some opponents accused the kibbutzim of ethnic discriminating against residents of Jerusalem's disadvantaged neighborhoods. But the focus soon shifted to the gazelles themselves, who had been cut off from their natural habitat 15 years earlier, when roads and homes were built on every side of the valley.

Without the gazelles, anti-construction activists said yesterday, it is doubtful that they would have won. And attorney Meir Porges, who represented the kibbutzim, agreed.

"The gazelles were a cliche that captured the media and the public consciousness," he said, adding that had the planning council approved the kibbutzim's revised plan - which called for construction in only a small portion of the valley - the city would have gained housing and employment and the gazelles would still have survived.

In 2003, the planning council rejected the kibbutzim's plan, ruling that the valley should remain open space. But then a new battle began, over the character of the open space.

Residents of the two neighborhoods that abut the valley, Katamon and Givat Mordechai, joined with activists from the nonprofits to draft a plan. Their plan called for part of the valley to be left in its natural state, to accommodate the gazelles, while the remainder would be a public park. That is the plan that was finally approved yesterday. The decision is thought to be the first time that residents who do not own the rights to a piece of land have nevertheless succeeded in getting a planning council to approve their proposal for it.

The Jerusalem municipality has agreed to take on the job of raising funds to build the park, and the activists hope that work will begin early next year.

During the lengthy approval process for the plan, a tragedy took place. At some point in the past year a pack of wild dogs began killing off the gazelles. It took months before the Israel Nature and Parks Authority managed to catch all the dogs, and by then only three does were left.

Four months ago the city agreed to install a temporary fence around the valley to protect the remaining gazelles, but work has yet to begin on it. Residents hope that now, with the final approval of the plan, construction of the fence will soon begin.

After that, said Amir Balaban of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, it will be possible to start rebuilding the herd by introducing new gazelles into the valley.