Bulldozers on Bible Site Push Israel Land Debate

Cherished by Christians as the birthplace of John the Baptist and a site Mary visited before giving birth to Jesus, Ein Kerem is one of the few places in the Holy Land where pilgrims and residents can still savor a sense of the biblical landscape.

But those who love this village's quiet atmosphere worry that Ein Kerem will soon give way to development pressures that could turn it into just another modern Jerusalem neighborhood.

In some ways, Ein Kerem is the story of a local neighborhood's struggle against developers. But Ein Kerem is special both because of its religious significance and its place in Jerusalem, where Israeli leaders are trying to boost their population to hinder Palestinian claims to the city's disputed eastern half.

Though it was an Arab village until 1948, Ein Kerem is now part of Jewish West Jerusalem - Israel proper - and is by no means considered by Palestinians a controversial spot for building. But Israeli conservatives such as Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert estimate that with the high Arab birth rate in East Jerusalem, Jews will become a steadily smaller proportion of the city's overall population, bolstering Palestinian demands to make their capital here.

City officials say that a housing crunch in Jerusalem has forced young Israeli couples to live elsewhere. In short, growth in Ein Kerem would mean growth in the Jewish population of Jerusalem.

But that's hardly a priority to residents in the village. Their local committee includes prominent Israelis, Western expatriates, and nuns from some of the seven churches here - all of whom worry that overdevelopment is going to destroy the village's character.

"Ein Kerem is a magnet for Christians from abroad because they're pleased to come to a place that basically looks like it did when Jesus walked the land," says Karl Perkal, one of leaders of the residents' committee.

"This is also important to nature lovers because it's the last green space in Jerusalem. We've been fighting for a generation to keep developers out," he says.

Part of the pressure on Ein Kerem has come from the place's own charm. Some 2.5 million tourists flock to the village of 2,000 each year. They are not just pilgrims from abroad, but also Israelis looking to soak up the atmosphere and patronize boutiques and restaurants that stay open on Saturdays, when the rest of Jerusalem is shuttered. The village has also become a desirable place to have a home.

The Jerusalem municipality says it is considering allowing the construction of at least 100 new buildings inside the village center to accommodate more tourists. And much of the area around Ein Kerem - some of it once slated to become national parkland - will be plowed over for more homes.

Landscape architect Shlomo Aronson, who lives and works here, says the problem is not limited to Jerusalem, and is more about growth than politics.

"All of these biblical areas are being completely changed.... You come to Nazareth, and instead of seeing a little village in the middle of Galilee, you see a metropolis. It's worth it for humankind to preserve it."

Mr. Aronson says he appreciates that at least he and the residents' committee are being consulted on how best to build in Ein Kerem unobtrusively. But they have had setbacks: Some of the churches have sold land in decisions that were reportedly made by overseas headquarters, beyond the control of local clergy.

And the mayor's office says much of the push for development is coming from the Israel Lands Administration, which is in charge of selling or leasing state-owned land. The ILA insists that some of Ein Kerem must be developed to pay for needed renovations.

"We need to improve the infrastructure, roads, pipelines," says Anda Barr, the ILA's deputy director of planning and development.

"We don't want to do it against the wishes of the local population, but they need to understand that you can't get improvements without some development," says Ms. Barr. "The problem with Jerusalem is that wherever you build, you are changing something of the past."

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