The Housing Ministry plan to build some 30,000 residential units on land that extends to the edges of the Elah Valley to the south, the place where the Bible says David fought and killed Goliath.
By Zafrir Rinat | May.10, 2013

Residents of Beit Shemesh and nearby communities have been trying for years, with no success, to stop part of the plan to expand the city. The new construction would destroy the beautiful hills and unique forests.

In the first successful move to stop the plan, the Israel Parks and Nature Authority, the Housing and Construction Ministry and the Jerusalem region of the Interior Ministry reached an agreement recently that part of the area of the plan will be preserved as a national park. But this agreement is not enough for the local residents battling the plan in their attempt to preserve the natural landscape of the region, and the activists intend to continue their struggle to protect further areas.

Bulldozers are already at work at the southern tip of Beit Shemesh, preparing the land for construction. The city and the Housing Ministry plan to build some 30,000 residential units on land that extends to the edges of the Elah Valley to the south, the place where the Bible says David fought and killed Goliath.

It seems that a large part of the new apartments are meant for the Haredi population. This translates into almost 200,000 new residents in Beit Shemesh when the entire plan is completed, double its present population. The city will also increase its area by 50,000 dunams ‏(12,500 acres‏), which will give it a total area almost the same as Tel Aviv.

Local residents established a nonprofit organization recently to promote turning the area involved into a national park called “the Land of David.” The residents want to preserve a continuous stretch of the hilly landscape around the Elah Valley. Intil recently it seemed they stood little chance. The construction had already started and the official planning bodies continued to approve more and more land for building. But the director general of the parks authority, Shaul Goldstein, recently reached the agreement to preserve areas surrounding one of the most important archaeological sites in the region, Hirbet Kaifeh.

“We think there is great importance to preserving the historic continuous landscape of the region,” said Goldstein yesterday. “This area is an ecological corridor that aids in preserving nature.” The parks authority is now preparing the plan for the national park in an area that already has approval for the building of over 1,000 housing units. The plan for the national park still needs approval of the planning bodies.

But the local activists were disappointed by the parks authority’s agreement. “We are of the opinion that the area of the national park should be significantly increased,” said Tzahi Zangi, local council head in nearby Aviezer and a leading activist against the construction project. The park must be enlarged to include other archaeological sites and protect more of the land surrounding the valley, he said. The activists will continue to fight and intend on presenting the planning committee with objections to two of the new neighborhoods slated for nearby hills, said Zangi.

The hills surrounding Beit Shemesh are a combination of natural forest with a wide variety of plants and animals and archaeological sites. Flocks of gazelles live in the area, along with jackals and badgers. A large number of bird species fly over the regions.

The Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting salvage digs in some of the areas already marked for construction. Archaeologists have found hundreds of sites, including a magnificent Roman villa, the remains of a Hellenistic-era city, ritual baths and a large number of ancient agricultural facilities, such as wine and olive presses. Archaeologists think the region was a major agricultural area during the First and Second Temple periods.
The large majority of these archaeological sites will disappear as the construction advances.

The area is also important as an ecological corridor for animals and for the dispersion of wild plants. Surrounding open areas are being hemmed in more and more by the paving of new roads and construction of the separation barrier to region’s south. These hills are almost the last land strip that serves as an open passage between the Jerusalem Hills in the east and Shfela region in the west.

The Beit Shemesh municipality said: “All the steps of the planning process are being carried out in full coordination and cooperation with the Israel Parks and Nature Authority and the green organizations, and with the strictest adherence to the values of preserving the environment and landscape.

As a result, thousands of housing units were canceled out of the total in the new planned neighborhoods. In the next few days statutory meetings will be held by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee and in the Housing Ministry, at which the overall details will be discussed.”