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Israel's environmental movement celebrated a rare victory last week when the National Planning and Construction Committee overturned a decision to establish a new communal village on Mount Gilboa in the lower Galilee.
The September 5 about-face was the culmination of a four-year campaign headed by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) against the new settlement, called Michal, on a site where the rare Gilboa Iris grows.
"I knew we wouldn't allow it to happen," Yoav Sagi director of the SPNI's Open Landscape Institute (OLI) told Metro. "Far more attention is given nowadays to the subject of preserving open spaces at local levels, and this trend is beginning to filter up to national and governmental planning bodies. I welcome this change in direction," added Sagi, a former SPNI director and chairman. The SPNI's logo features the Gilboa Iris, a rare indigenous flower.
He pointed to an "accumulation of alternative thinking" in Israel's planning bodies in recent years.
"The change is perceptible. This decision will help prevent more battles of this type - it's a victory for common sense," he said.
The 15 to five vote to scrap the project was seen as a landmark for Israel's supreme planning institution, which traditionally sides with political and economic interests when challenged by environmentalists. Although the would-be settlers proposed establishing an ecologically friendly village incorporating hitherto unaccepted principles such as rainwater recycling and sustainable power generation, they met with fervent opposition from several environmental groups.
A group of SPNI activists demonstrated at the proposed settlement's cornerstone-laying ceremony four years ago, where housing minister Natan Sharansky spoke of the need to strengthen Jewish presence in the area. The nearly 300 dunam site is less than a kilometer from the Green Line.
Following the ceremony, members of the original settlement group, who had planned to form Israel's first ecovillage, met with SPNI officials and decided to abandon the project. However, the Beit She'an Valley Regional Council soon enlisted a new group of potential residents for the village.
Some 700 objections were registered by environmental organizations and local residents after the Beit She'an Valley Regional Council deposited plans for Michal for public comment in March 2005. This resulted in the National Planning and Construction Committee's appointing an investigator to examine the contrary claims.
"The investigator accepted all our assertions, and her report strengthened every one of our arguments. Most [committee members] voted according to their conscience. Those who voted for Michal are susceptible to pressure from government ministries," said Sagi.
In particular, Sagi noted that former Beit She'an Valley council head Yael Shaltieli is now director-general of the Agriculture Ministry, a fervent supporter of establishing the new community.
"The Israel Nature and Parks Authority supported setting up this village until the day of the meeting. It wasn't clear how they would vote until the last minute. Once they realized the settlement would not become a reality, they changed their vote," said Sagi.
He dismissed the government's traditional policy of setting up new communities in order to strengthen outlying areas as "anachronistic and unnecessary." The environmentalists' struggle against the establishment of Michal became a symbol for nature preservation in Israel.
"This decision was unusual in that they previously had a strong majority in favor of construction. We still have to work hard to achieve a victory of this type. This is not our last battle," Sagi asserted.