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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A battle is raging over the pending construction of a new international airport in Megiddo, in the Jezreel Valley.
According to the Transportation Ministry, the number of people flying to and from Israel annually is expected to double, from 15 million to 30 million, in the next 20 years, creating urgent necessity for a new airport. The regional council in Megiddo, however, vehemently opposes the initiative.
"It [the airport] is absolutely absurd and does not serve the national interest of the State of Israel, which is the preservation of open areas, including the preservation of the significant agricultural land reserves of the Jezreel Valley, tourism development and rural areas with ecological environmental sensitivity," the Megiddo regional council said in a statement this week.
Though officials say the airport would undoubtedly increase tourism to the area, local authorities, residents and environmental organizations are actively opposing its construction. Yoel Sigal, the strategic planner for the Megiddo Municipality, is leading the campaign against the project.
"The selling of the Jezreel Valley" represents one of the worst elements of Israeli development policy, he said on Tuesday. Under the National Development Plan, the valley is defined as an area for farming. If the region became an urban center, it would effectively merge Afula, Nazareth and Haifa and would destroy one of the most important agricultural zones of the country, he said.
Furthermore, the airport project would reduce agricultural output and add to the country's increasing dependency on imported field crops.
Previous transportation minister Shaul Mofaz appointed former OC air force Maj.-Gen. (res.) Herzl Bodinger to head a committee on the future of air transport in Israel. The Bodinger Committee's recommendation to build an international airport in Megiddo was approved by the cabinet on February 1.
The 400-dunam (40 hectare) airport site, which is 60 km. away from Ben-Gurion Airport, is projected to cost $35 million. It is not at the same location as the existing Megiddo Airport, which handles local traffic.
Sigal said the airport would be a blight on the region.
"Everyone talks about it [the airport] as a lever of development," he said. "We are not against development, but bringing an international airport into one of the cradles of the creation of the State of Israel and destroying one of the most important agricultural spaces in the country is not the type of development we need."
Residents and local authorities are not opposed to small-scale, local development such as constructing a railway or providing discounted land for businesses, housing or government.
Sigal said one of the reasons the new airport was being pushed was that a deal had been made with private developers, and a preliminary agreement had been reached. In terms of noise and land, the construction of the airport would only directly affect some 3,000 to 4,000 people, but Sigal insisted that it would have a lasting effect on national interests and heritage, as well as on the local environment.
"In many senses, the airport represents the type of exploitative development Israel has now adopted, a development that doesn't respect people," Sigal said.
Whether an international airport is actually needed in the Megiddo area is also being questioned. With better railways and more bus routes, Sigal believes Israel could hold off on the construction for another 40 years. Also, international airport alternatives that were on the table include Nevatim in the Negev, an expansion of the existing Ben-Gurion Airport, and an artificial island in the Mediterranean.
"The municipality looks at this as the most exploitative type of development at all levels. There is no justification for creating an urban center in the Jezreel Valley," he said.
Michael Lipschitz, the manager of Amakim and Merhavim - an environmental NGO established in 2008 that aims to protect the country's rural areas and open spaces - is lobbying against the Megiddo airport.
"The movement of the planes and cars will cause air pollution, there will be construction of many roads and interchanges that will eventually create an 'airport city,' and the open spaces will disappear," Lipschitz said.
He explained that the initiative would destroy the western Jezreel Valley. Directly, it would take about 7,000 dunams of agricultural land, and indirectly, some 100,000 dunams, he said.
But Lipschitz remains optimistic.
"We hope to change the government decision via the leaders of the local authorities," he said. "As far as we see, there are many grassroots objections. We think we will succeed in influencing them to choose another option [for the airport] in the South."