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ISRAEL: Politics threaten unique natural expanse

September 21, 2008 |  6:12 pm

Last week, Israel's Ministry of Environmental Protection honored 12 citizens with lifetime achievement awards. Among the winners were five of the founders of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, or SPNI.

The society warmly congratulated the winners but boycotted the ceremony to protest the environment minister's support of a decision they denounce as a "black day for the environment, planning and democracy in Israel" and the bluntest instance of aggressive political intervention in planning.

LachishThe national planning and construction committee had approved plans for Mirsham, a new residential community to sprawl three hilltops in the area of Lachish, a beautiful expanse of untouched nature already slated for protection for its flowers, wildlife and historic heritage sites.

Actually, planning policy prefers expansion of  communities rather than constructing new ones, especially in open natural areas. The communities south of Israel's crowded urban center are smallish and rural. Modestly populated, most are eager to take in new families to rejuvenate older communities, and inexpensive housing opportunities are not lacking. Besides, two new communities had been approved.

So why carve up a beautiful landscape and spend billions on infrastructure for a community no one really needs?

Capitulation to political pressure is why, say environmentalists: because Mirsham is earmarked for the relocation of families evacuated from Gush Katif -- all of two dozen families.

Three years ago, Israel disengaged from the Gaza Strip, withdrawing its army and evacuating 8,000 citizens from 21 settlements. In spite of government efforts, compensation and rehabilitation have been slow and most families still live in temporary housing. Recently, the government passed a law to expedite housing solutions, allowing for rushed bureaucratic planning procedures.

Cutting through red tape is one thing; cutting through red wildflowers is another.

Kalaniot_3Every winter and early spring, the expanses of Lachish are covered with a carpet of bright red anemones and buttercups, among Israel's trademark protected wildflowers. Thousands of nature lovers come from around the country to marvel at the spectacular sight.

Hikers_in_lachish Construction in the area will irreparably damage the unique features of the most biologically diverse region in the country and disrupt its function as an important ecological corridor. The region is as unique underground as it is above it, containing caves used for hiding during revolts against the Romans, as well as columbarium and burial caves and ancient water systems.

For two years, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, a nongovernmental and apolitical organization, tried to protect this special region from the planned construction. About 12,000 people signed a petition against it, among them Israel's Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, scientists, legislators, ordinary citizens -- and all 12 of the lifetime achievement award winners.

Ophir Pines-Paz, chairman of the Knesset's interior and environmental protection committee, criticized the crude attempt to subordinate professional planning and environmental issues to political calculations and called for finding housing solutions within the framework of existing communities. Financial journalist Nehemia Strasler was more blunt. The prime minister, finance minister and interior minister had all promised the evacuees "who do not deign to join existing communities" to advance the plan and none of them had the courage to tell them the truth that it was unworthy, he said. "Once again, the government caved in to the country's most powerful pressure group -- the Gush Katif evacuees, backed by the West Bank settlers and members of Knesset from the right," Strasler said on Israel radio.

And what about Gideon Ezra, the minister for the environment? At the last minute, he switched to supporting the construction. Instead of leading the struggle, say disappointed SPNI officials, he prevented its leaders from stating their professional objection, taking up an utterly anti-environmental position.

The SPNI intends to challenge the planning committee's decision in court.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Top photo: A green window in Lachish. Credit: Seffi Baumfeld.

Bottom left: Enjoy the flowers at Lachish. Credit: David Shohami.

Bottom right: Anemones at Lachish. Credit: Amir Balaban/SPNI

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