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Birds of a Feather: Netanyahu, Harper Inaugurate Wildlife Sanctuary (VIDEO REPORT with text)

At Jewish National Fund gala, Israeli prime minister says Israel ‘has no better friend’ than former Canadian counterpart, for whom visitor center is named

After 10 years of planning and construction, the Stephen J. Harper KKL-JNF Hula Visitor Center is finally open. Named after former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper – a longstanding supporter of Israel – the state-of-the-art structure is located in Israel’s upper Galilee, one of the world’s most important birding sites.

Launched in partnership with the Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), the center features a number of attractions, including an interactive bird wall, a virtual reality station and 3D-printed models. (Text report follows.)

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and former Canadian prime minister Stephen J. Harper attended a gala in Jerusalem Tuesday evening to celebrate the opening of a long-awaited bird sanctuary and visitor center.

Spearheaded by the Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), the Stephen J. Harper KKL-JNF Hula Valley Visitor Center officially opened on Wednesday after 10 years of planning and construction.

Located in Israel’s upper Galilee region – a major stopover for some 500 million migratory birds each spring and fall – the sanctuary is expected to function as a base for tourists to the area. It features interactive exhibits and a convention center.

“I think it is fitting that it is named after Stephen Harper because Israel has had no better friend than Stephen Harper,” Netanyahu said to raucous applause during a speech at the gala, which was held at a Jerusalem hotel and attended by dignitaries from KKL-JNF branches around the world, as well as by donors and Israeli officials.

“Stephen, you have stood up for our values time and again. You’re still doing that today. And we welcome you once again to Jerusalem,” the Israeli leader stated.

Harper, meanwhile, referred to Netanyahu as “the single most consequential figure” in modern Israel’s history.

“We know that tonight is in gratitude for the steadfast support that the government I led gave to the State of Israel,” Harper told attendees. “That support was based on the values and interests of Canada – the values and interests which Israel shares and is on the frontlines defending.”

Harper, a staunch supporter of the Jewish state and one of Netanyahu’s longstanding allies, was in Israel on a four-day trip, and was present on Wednesday when the center was officially opened.

Hanoch Roginski, chief architect and planning coordinator for the NIS 130 million ($37.1 million) visitor center, told The Media Line on Wednesday that the concept grew out of an architectural contest a little over eight years ago.

“The three main points we based this design on are as follows: A green roof rises from the ground up and turns into a viewing area. The second element is a big open space that allows for several exhibits and for the public to move around freely inside. Finally, there are the walls of the center, which create… a very special effect inside the space,” he said.

Canadian Sen. Linda Frum, who helped spearhead the fundraising for the initiative, told The Media Line she hoped the visitor center would boost the economy of northern Israel.

“I hope it will be here for generations to come [and] that Canadians visiting Israel, and also Israelis, will always remember the name of Stephen Harper, one of the greatest friends Israel has ever had from Canada,” Frum said.

Lance Davis, CEO of JNF-Canada, told The Media Line that the partnership between Diaspora Jews and Israel “comes to life” in such a place.

“We want to ensure that people can learn to love nature and the natural habitat,” he added. “What better place than the Hula Valley?”

According to Davis, some 500,000 people visit the area each year, and the hope is that with the new center, the number will eventually reach one million.

“I do believe that the visitor and education center will be a tool to help bring more people here, more birders from around the world,” he said.

Founded in 1901, KKL-JNF is a non-profit organization whose stated goal is to “[strengthen] the bond between the Jewish people and its homeland.” Before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the JNF played a pivotal role in purchasing land and led major tree-planting projects there.

At the Tuesday-evening gala, Netanyahu also made reference to Iran’s decision to enrich uranium at its Fordow nuclear facility, a move announced by Tehran earlier in the day.

“Iran expands its aggression everywhere. It seeks to envelop Israel. It seeks to threaten Israel. It seeks to destroy Israel,” he said.

“We fight back,” he went on. “We will never let Iran develop nuclear weapons.”