The Timna Valley, about 30 km north of Eilat, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places in Israel. Safely out of earshot of the trucks and cars hurtling along the Arava highway, it is a site of desert serenity. Yet the silence may soon be shattered.
In the early 1990s, the local planning and construction committee approved a proposal to build a hotel on a 300-dunam (some 75 acres) plot in the valley, but the work never commenced and the approvals gathered dust. Some five years ago, Joab Igra, the owner, builder and architect of the opulent 330-room Herod's Palace resort and theme hotel in Eilat, began to design a hotel complex for the site, based on the existing approvals.
Most residents of the area were unaware of the scale or location of the project until an investigative article penned by Kibbutz Samar member Yaniv Golan appeared in the local newspaper B'ktseh Hamidbar ("At The Desert's Edge") in early September. In fact, four hotels are reportedly planned for the site: a "prestigious" spa hotel, a "luxurious" convention center-hotel, a family-style hotel and one especially suited for jeep tours, all linked by a winding waterway for boats and gondolas. The blueprint also reportedly includes shops, restaurants, pubs, discotheques and a children's water park attraction.
"I read Yaniv's article and like many of my neighbors was amazed," Timor Katz, a resident of Kibbutz Elifaz, told Metro earlier this week. "This megalomanic project evolved quietly over the past few years and involves fencing in an enormous area, not allowing anyone in. They are going to cut this beautiful place off from wild animals and people not connected to the hotel."
"It's the only area in the country with both sandstone hills and dunes," Katz noted. "Beyond the objective beauty of the place, it's a kilometer from us and I have personal sentiments - my children played there before they could walk. Members of the local kibbutzim are suddenly talking about it around the breakfast table."
Katz is one of about a dozen activists who quickly launched a knee-jerk campaign to halt the plan. Early last week, they set up a website (www.freewebs.com/timna), released a Hebrew Power Point presentation into the cybersphere and started signing people on an internet petition calling for a rethink (www.postool.co.il/petition.php?user=timnahotelpetition). By Monday this week, over 17,000 Israelis had already signed the petition. (The organizers hope to release an English version of the Power Point presentation "within days)".
"The feedback has really surprised us," admits Katz. "The core group met for the first time only three weeks ago. We're all working people, most with children, so we don't have a lot of free time or money to put into this. We do whatever we can, whenever we can. We're receiving a tremendous number of supportive e-mails, but because the campaign started so late in the process we have yet to see how much leverage it will have. No established environmental group is behind the campaign, just a handful of people from kibbutzim in the area who realize that a tremendous mistake is being made. None of the 'Green' organizations have joined in yet - there are those who think it's a lost cause, while others apparently think the issue isn't sexy enough."
Igra, who defines himself as an "ecological architect," refutes outright the claims of environmental damage. "This is the most ecological project of its type ever built in Israel. You don't go into the desert and build a casino - not me, at least," he told Metro.
"The whole point of the project is to be an example of how construction should be carried out in a desert environment," Igra insists. "Even though we have permission to build up to three stories, all the buildings will be limited to two stories in order to blend into their surroundings. All vehicles will be parked outside in order to prevent noise and air pollution. Recycled, purified wastewater will be used to irrigate the gardens. We'll use solar energy, and the buildings will be prefabricated from only environmentally-friendly materials rather than sinking foundations into the ground - even the ceramic work will not be performed on-site."
Udi Gat, head of the Eilot Regional Council that oversees a vast swathe of the southern Arava, says the anti-hotel campaign is based on a misunderstanding of the project. "I'm proud to say that it all started with an article in our local paper, paid for by the council itself. We made no attempt to censor it, even though Yaniv told me that he would voice his opinion against the project. We're open to hear all opinions."
Gat recounted how the hotel project reached this stage: "About 13 years ago, planners sat with all the relevant governmental and environmental bodies, including the Israel Nature and Parks Authority's southern region director Ronny Malka. They came up with a way to preserve Timna Park as virgin land, while bringing people closer to nature. They decided to include over 65,000 dunams in the park, and designated 300 dunams for the hotel - not in the park but near the park entrance in a place that cannot be seen, in a small wadi. This was the correct decision. The plan received statutory approval, but it sat in a drawer for a long time."
"Then Joab Igra, who is a green architect himself, approached us to enact the plan that had been approved in the 90s. Three or four years ago we started to discuss this proposal in the council," recounts Gat. "All the issues were discussed - water recycling, environmental damage, building height, etc. We hung notices on kibbutz notice boards inviting residents to public debates on the issue, but few people turned up. There was no critical mass against the idea."
The Eilot region, covering some 2.2 million dunams (over half a million acres), incorporates 10 kibbutzim (Eilot, Samar, Elifaz, Yotvata, Grofit, Ketura, Lotan, Yahel, Neveh Harif and Naot Smadar) and two communal settlements (Shaharut and Be'er Ora). "As a council, we are in favor of preserving nature," insists Gat, a member of Kibbutz Ketura now in his ninth year as council head. "We live in nature, and want to wake in the morning to breathe fresh air and hear birdsongs. We're all against destroying the place we live in. I think it's the right thing to do - and not only for the arnona [local taxes] income."
Local residents point to a lack of inherent checks and balances in the Eilot Regional Council, which serves only slightly more than 3,000 residents while overseeing some 13 percent of Israel's land mass. "In an area like ours, everyone knows everyone else," pointed out one resident, who asked to remain anonymous for precisely that reason.
"This area suffers serious income problems, and the hotel is planned to counteract that. The people who made this decision had good intentions, but they didn't realize the implications - the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We slept while the developers drew up their plans. No-one paid attention to what was going on, and now it may be too late - but there's no bad guy here," said the resident, who is familiar with the decision-makers. "Even members of the local council didn't know what's going on. It's like a butterfly effect - each little decision along the way could eventually produce a typhoon. We all want development for the area, including a hotel in Timna, but not at the expense of destroying the desert."
"One way of working is through the local council, where the initiative started," Katz said of the campaign. "Such projects must be open to public debate, not deals closed between a few people in a meeting. It's so late in terms of the statutory approvals that probably the only way to stymie the project is through a critical mass of public opinion against it. If the developers get a bad rap, maybe they'll think twice. We will also try to explore the legal avenue, but as I understand it the project received its final approval two weeks ago so we're not very optimistic regarding that. Until the bulldozers move the earth and scar this beautiful spot, we will continue to fight."
This is not the first time the issue has resurfaced in recent years. A series of discussions about what to do with the Timna area was held throughout the 1990s at both local and national levels. According to the anti-hotel campaigners, when the Timna Valley was divided among the local administrative bodies some 15 years ago, the Eilot Regional Council demanded that the area between Sasgon Hill and Michrot ("Mines") Mountain, west of Kibbutz Elifaz and south-west of Kibbutz Samar, be allocated for establishing the hotel. The Nature Reserve Authority paid the price so that other areas may be declared a nature reserve.
In the early 1990s, hotel magnate Sol Kerzner, who developed the sprawling Sun City casino-hotel complex in South Africa, reportedly proposed converting the disused Timna copper mines into a grandiose over- and under-ground tourist attraction going by the name "King Solomon's Mines." However, resistance from Israel's then-fledgling environmental movement led to a compromise in 1995 under which the plan was shelved and over 65,000 dunams (some 16,000 acres) were designated national parkland (Timna Park), while commercial activity is allowed in designated areas around the park's natural pool, and another area was earmarked for a hotel including "attractions" such as swimming pools and a subterranean visitors' center in the ancient copper mines.
According to the campaigners, the Nature and Parks Authority agreed to give up an area of rare natural value because the kibbutzim had political clout as the main inhabitants of the Arava, and mainly kibbutzniks comprise the local authority. "In an area of such sparse population, everybody knows everybody, everybody works with everybody, and there is no opposition," reads the campaign's e-mail presentation.
An oft-overlooked gem
The U-shaped Timna Valley opens eastward towards the Arava, is straddled by yellow sandstone hills about 300 meters high from three sides, and features the red volcanic Mt. Timna in its center.
Timna Park features some amazing natural phenomena, such as King Solomon's Pillars carved by water erosion, the red sandstone "mushroom" rock and arches hewed by winds, fascinating remnants of primitive cultures including rock carvings, and ancient copper furnaces of King Solomon's Mines where ancient Egyptians first began mining copper over six millennia ago.
Copper has been mined and smelted in the Timna Valley ever since the sixth millennium BCE, when humans discovered how to turn rock into malleable metal. Extensive remains of ancient human activity can still be found in the rugged hills, and there is evidence of copper mining in shafts and galleries and copper smelting in furnaces of various types, remains of camps and several cult sites, including an Egyptian mining sanctuary.
Copper production has a long and complex history in Timna, dating from the Late Neolithic period to the Middle Ages. Mining activities in the valley peaked during the reign of the Pharaohs of the 14th-12th centuries BCE, as Egyptian mining expeditions collaborated with Midianites and local Amalekites to create a large-scale copper industry.
In the 1930s, US-born archaeologist and educator Nelson Glueck attributed the copper mining at Timna to King Solomon (10th century BCE) and named the site "King Solomon's Mines," although this theory has not been subsequently verified.