Haaretz reported on the damage caused to the Yitla Gorge in the Judean Hills by the construction of a railway bridge, as part of the high speed line to Jerusalem scheduled to be completed by 2017. “The gorge we knew no longer exists,” said Avraham Shaked, a nature preservation coordinator with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
The mini-canyon of Nahal Yitla, a valley located to the northwest of my home in Moshav Neve Ilan, was considered as one of the “deepest and most impressive in the Jerusalem Hills.” The “Yitla Stream is situated in the heart of one of the best preserved Mediterranean grove areas in the Hills,” said Ze'ev Hacohen, a ranger from the Nature and Parks Authority. It “functions as a habitat for a variety of cliffs plant species and as a nesting site for predators species like falcons, buteos and eagle owls," he said. Yitla is not actually a stream, as there is no water in the valley.
Despite the ominous reports of environmental damage, on a hike upstream from the site of the controversial railway bridge I discovered beautiful, pristine green scenery in totally serene surroundings.
The high speed rail line to Jerusalem will pass not far from my home, but most of it will be underground. The line includes two tunnels, one of which at a length of 11.5 kilometers will be the longest tunnel in Israel. Luckily, construction crews accessing the Yitla Valley passed through Neve Ilan with minimal interference. As a result of the work, there is now a paved road leading down a steep descent towards the site where Bridge #8 is constructed across the gorge.
Construction of the 144-meter bridge was opposed by environmentalists, who called for an additional tunnel under the gorge so as not to disturb the habitat. A tunnel at the location would have delayed the project further, as well as added to its already expensive cost. Even so, the Haaretz report stated that the railway’s planning process showed that greater weight had been given to environmental concerns than in the past.
45 minute descent to the valley floor
Getting to the Yitla Valley floor required a downward hike of 45 minutes. The valley separates Neve Ilan from Har Haruach and Nataf to the north. It is a forest full of pine trees and colorful flowers, everywhere lush with greenery after the winter’s abundant rainfall. There is a cave on one of the valley walls, and I’ve visited it in the past, but its entrance was now hidden behind the thick overgrowth.
I hiked westward, following the valley trail past signs indicating that due to construction on the railway line, the path was blocked ahead, but this was not the case. I never reached the Yitla Valley bridge construction site, but I did make it to the paved road. Walking up this steep ascent back towards my home was the most difficult and tiring aspect of the hike.
I am sorry that parts of the Yitla Valley were damaged by the construction of the high speed rail line, but I am glad that a good part of the valley is as beautiful as ever. Efforts must be made constantly to minimize environmental damage to Israel’s nature reserves in order to preserve them for future generations.
Tunnels to Jerusalem