JERUSALEM – You CAN fight city hall and big business – and save an endangered species in the process.
In order to create a home for a herd of Israeli mountain gazelles, a group of environmental and urban activists has spent 15 years preventing developers from taking over a green space in the middle of Jerusalem.
The plans for the Gazelle Valley Urban Wildlife Park were finally approved in May 2008, but it took another seven years for the oasis to officially open just before Pesach.
An oasis it is – 26 hectares of grass, shrubs, trees and reservoirs situated between the busy Pat Intersection and the Begin Highway. It’s within sight of the mammoth Holyland residential complex, considered by most Jerusalemites to be a blight on the landscape as well as a prime example of urban development run amok.
The Holyland project sparked one of the greatest corruption scandals in the history of Israel. It also contributed to the downfall of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who approved the project when he was mayor of Jerusalem, was convicted of bribery last year and sentenced to six years in prison.
“Gazelle Valley is the exact opposite image of the Holyland project,” environmentalist and photographer Amir Balaban, one of the driving forces behind the project, told the Times of Israel when the nature park opened at the end of March.
“Gazelle Valley is an urban diamond. It’s all about creating a unique, characteristic site, renewing and redeveloping a whole section of the city.”
The mountain gazelle has been around for about 11,000 years. But there are only about 2,000 left in Israel, mostly in the north, and they are believed to be extinct in Jordan and Syria. Although they are protected by law, their numbers have dropped dramatically because of illegal hunting and attacks by wild dogs.
But some of them migrated to Jerusalem and settled in what’s officially known as the Pri Har Valley, once used to grow fruit for the city, but later gone to seed.
The site attracted developers who wanted to change the zoning to build 1,400 housing units. Balaban and Naomi Tzur of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), along with local residents and other green activists, launched a successful public campaign – including demonstrations and lawsuits – to forestall the developers.
With the help of the Beracha Foundation, planners from SPNI came up with the current design. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat came on board, and the plan was approved in May 2008.
The Jerusalem municipality invested $6.8 million CAD in the renovations, and will add another $21.7 million over the next few years, from the city budget and donations raised through the Jerusalem Foundation.
Volunteers helped plant trees and continue to guide tours and maintain the preserve. There are plans for Friday night prayer services and classical music concerts.
About a third of the park is reserved for gazelles, another third for visitors – including paths and shaded viewing areas – and the remaining area is a buffer zone between humans and gazelles.
There are now seven gazelles in the park – down from 17 in 2008 – some of which were brought in from private collections and zoos. You can watch a video of two young female gazelles being introduced into the park at http://tinyurl.com/kthz2bd.
They’re a shy bunch. One of my friends has seen the gazelles on her early-morning runs beside the valley, but I didn’t see any on my visit, and my tour guide has not seen any in three visits. That will change.
Traffic noise and the hulking Holyland buildings make it hard to forget you’re in the middle of a bustling city. But that, too, will change as the trees mature.
And nothing can get in the way of this landmark victory by remarkable people who never let themselves forget that we were put on this earth to live in harmony with nature, not to destroy it.
The gazelles aren’t talking. But I’m sure they approve.