The cabinet on Sunday rejected an appeal by Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz against the approval of a rail line connecting the country’s center to Eilat.
The cabinet first approved plans for the 260-kilometer line, which will stretch from Beersheba to Eilat, on October 6. Cabinet approval followed authorization by the National Council for Planning and Building in March, after a February decision by the Southern District Committee for Planning and Building approving the final stretch of the rail line from Dimona to Hatzeva. Environmentalists, including ecologists from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, had particularly opposed that final stretch, claiming that placing the rail line there would be destructive to nature that has thrived since the biblical era.
“It is impossible to discuss the train route and approve it when we do not know how it will connect to its final destination,” Peretz said. “Thus far, about a million shekels have been invested in planning the project and no one is willing to say how the train will arrive at Eilat – on trucks or via a new port constructed north of Eilat.”
Although the train is supposed to be used as a land bridge between Eilat and the Mediterranean Sea, it is expected to make its final stop north of Eilat, the Environment Ministry explained.
Cargo would therefore have to arrive at the train station either via trucks or by means of a deepwater channel from the Gulf of Eilat northward – the latter which environmentalists argue could destroy the bay’s coral reef. In their October 6 decision, Peretz argued that ministers approved the plan without either a vote on this route or an environmental impact assessment.
Peretz’s appeal on Sunday was rejected by a majority of the ministers, with 11 voting against and five in favor, the Environment Ministry said.
In addition to Peretz, one of the other five ministers to support his appeal on Sunday was allegedly Finance Minister Yair Lapid, according to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI).
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, on the other hand, has long hailed the project as one of strategic national importance, which would not only increase tourism but would also enable the passage of goods from Asia to Israel and on to Europe.
“The project will provide the basis for a rail link between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea and between Eilat Port and the ports of Ashdod and Haifa, and will enable the transfer of cargo to Eilat and from there to the train, while taking advantage of the train for long distances and simultaneously reducing road congestion,” Katz said, following the the rejection of Peretz’s appeal.
Prior to Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Social and Environmental lobby chairman MK Dov Henin (Hadash) sent a letter to the ministers, urging them to halt planning of the project in order to allow for extensive feasibility testing.
In his letter, Henin described how extensive research conducted by SPNI and the Shasha Center for Strategic Studies has demonstrated that the rail line would lead to “unprecedented environmental damage in the Negev and Arava and even the extinction of the coral reef in the Gulf of Eilat as a result of mining at port, which is required for the construction of a land bridge.”
The SPNI and Shasha Center report, submitted to the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee on October 21, highlighted many additional environmental and financial risks associated with building the line.
In addition to describing potential environmental repercussions, Henin wrote in his letter how a train ticket would likely be so pricey that families may prefer to fly or to drive in private vehicles to Eilat on Route 90.
Henin suggested that the tens of billions of shekels required for the project instead be allocated for education, health, welfare, and the struggle against poverty.
“A train that passes through the Negev at more than 200 kilometers per hour will not contribute anything to its residents,” Henin wrote. “The development of such an extensive and expensive project will involve shifting serious resources and will constitute an insufferable economic burden on society in Israel.”
The leaders of SPNI likewise sent a letter to the ministers prior to their Sunday meeting, stressing that this would be “the largest and most expensive transportation project ever undertaken in Israel,” with potentially enormous implications. Plans for building the railway largely progressed during the previous government, and a wealth of new information has become available, the organization said.
In support of Peretz’s appeal, students from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies protested the project’s advancement on Sunday morning, standing in the desert with signs reading “Stop the Train – Save Eilat.”
“When the reef will be destroyed, with it will be destroyed tourism to Eilat, no matter how fast tourists can arrive from Tel Aviv,” said Hagar Ben Shlomo, Arava coordinator for Green Course – a nationwide student environmental movement.
In order to improve transportation in the area, the Transportation Ministry should direct funds into establishing more public transportation within the Negev, rather than constructing the train, Ben Shlomo argued.