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Jerusalem’s Valley of the Gazelles

Metal gazelle cutouts on watch over Gazelle Valley. Story and photo by Lydia Aisenberg

A short distance from the Begin highway, the most heavily trafficked road in southwest Jerusalem, and sprawled in the shadow of the Holyland, one of Israel's most controversial and unattractive gigantic building projects, an inviting 60-plus acre urban nature reserve is nowadays attracting flora and fauna in large numbers as well as Jerusalemites and visitors from afar.

After a drawn-out and bitter battle in the law courts instigated by local residents, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) against eagerly waiting-in-the-wings real estate developers, the Gazelle Valley Nature Reserve is already handsomely inhabited by a sizeable herd of gazelles and hordes of species of wildlife, large and small, attracted to a number of small ponds and one large where two streams meet.

The Gazelle Valley is a large green lung hemmed in on all sides by a dense concrete jungle created by the Holyland development towering above the whole region, the bustling Patt Junction and neighborhoods of Givat Mordechai and Katamonim.

The nature reserve has become a favorite watering-hole not only for the fast-spreading natural flora and fauna and local neighborhood residents but also way out-of-town Israelis who have heard or read about the innovative development and abundance of seasonal "natural happenings" for families and school groups focussing on urban gardening, conservation, sustainability, shared animal and human space and more, all of which is organized by professional staff on site.

Open every day of the week at no charge to those that enter, the bike and walking trails, shaded picnic areas and comfortable wooden outdoor furniture are spread liberally throughout the reserve allowing one to sit, watch and totally enjoy the experience of embracing and being embraced by nature … even though one is in the middle of the capital city, in a somewhat overcrowded area. 

How it used to be ... packing fruit in the Gazelle Valley

Along the trails extremely decorative and informative signs share knowledge about the flowers, birds, animals and pond creatures – in Hebrew, Arabic and English – and colorful pamphlets mapping out the trails and special areas of interest, can be collected at the visitors' center near the entrance, which is tucked under the Givat Mordechai Fire Station and famous reversed ladder sculpture on the main road.

For over five decades the majority of the land in the valley was leased to a number of kibbutzim that developed apple, plum and cherry orchards. The Pri-Har company operated a fruit sorting and packing station in a central part of the valley until it closed down in the late 1980s. For many years the company employed new and not so new immigrants, who lived in the then developing government-built public housing neighborhoods on the slopes and hills around the valley.

Information boards at the site of the old packing station, with eye-catching black and white photographs of sorting and packing in progress in days of yore, also inform visitors that eventually, in the still-being developed reserve, an observation and education center is slated for construction at that point "in the spirit of the old packing house". What that means exactly was none too clear to this writer, one of the way out-of-towners actually.

When the land lease ran out, the kibbutzim abandoned the fruit orchards – at the time also home to a large herd of wild gazelles. When the kibbutzim pulled out, trees uprooted or died off, some of the gracious gazelles fell prey to roaming jackals, and others were killed on the fast-developing roads in the area.

The herd of wild gazelles was eventually reduced to just a handful.

A small gazelle station was set up in the middle of the valley and, with tender loving care administered by SPNI personnel and local volunteers, the gazelle population began to grow, as did the popularity of the site which fell into the sights of potential developers. Hence, almost two decades of activism began to save the valley as a natural habitat for wildlife. It finally caught the attention of the Jerusalem Municipality, which adopted the site and granted a large budget with hefty support from the Jerusalem Foundation and other organizations.

A fence was constructed around the valley to keep the gazelles from falling prey to roaming predators still in the area. A large portion of the valley inside the fence was developed into the trails, observation platforms cum picnic spots with water fountains for the visitors, A visitors' center and play areas inside were fenced off so that the gazelles can wander freely, but protected, in the abundant undergrowth and close to a natural water source.

Dogs are not allowed in Gazelle Valley, a bone of discontent – excuse the pun – for local pet owners who in the past regularly walked their four-legged friends through the remains of the orchards and wetlands created by the stream beds in winter.

It is late afternoon and a cool breeze blows through the valley as a few score people are scattered along the pathways and sitting areas near the large pond. A number of different languages can be heard from different corners.

A group of Hebrew-speaking teens – every second word seems to be the slang expression "sababa" - are busy taking selfies with the lake and the monstrous Holyland in the background. Some young children are crouched together, concentrating on filling in worksheets. One of the children suddenly excitedly jumps up to point to a group of five gazelles in the near distance, the animals nonchalantly holding their heads up high, the human scent brought downwind from across the pond.

In unison, all the kids ticked something on their worksheets … don't think any special prizes will be given for guessing what question they were collectively putting the affirmative tick to.

The Givat Mordechai Fire Station is a very short walk from the main entrance to the nature reserve and the firemen, if not dealing with an emergency, willingly receive visitors.

Although the intention was to pop in just for a minute, the courtyard exhibition of old equipment, fascinating sculptures on the outer walls and all those bright red, highly polished fire trucks lined up in the nearby open but covered area was too much of a temptation and so is now high on the "to-do" list for a longer, more in-depth visit next time in Jerusalem.



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Thursday, 18 July 2024

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