(photo credit: Rory Kress)
Environmentalists have just under a month to stop a housing development project in the northern Negev that will house families evacuated during the Gaza disengagement, saying it could interfere with global warming monitoring and derail an internationally significant bird migration corridor.
On November 5, representatives from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) will present their reservations to the objections committee in a last-ditch effort to prevent the development at Mirsham in the East Lachish region.
If SPNI's objection is rejected, some 500 housing units will be built as part of a new rural settlement district in the area, consisting of seven communities approved by the government in August to house the displaced Gaza evacuees.
In 1998, the Government Planning Board instructed the Israel Land Authority to set up a master planning committee for the East Lachish region.
According to the environmental planner for SPNI, Itamar Ben-David, who has spearheaded the campaign against the project, the government has tried for the past decade to weaken the opposition to building in this potentially lucrative spot that has been on the table without progress for over 10 years.
Though the Israel Land Authority agreed with SPNI representatives on the planning committee that the land should not be developed, Ben-David believes that the government is using the politically charged situation of the Gush Katif settlers to force development in the region.
Ben-David asserts, however, that SPNI's opposition should not be misconstrued as politicized opposition to the Gaza evacuees.
"We're not against [the Gush Katif settlers], these poor people. We are against these initiatives by the government," he says.
Out of 891 housing units to be built in the area, only around 170 are reserved for the evacuees in five of the seven new communities - Hazan, Shomriya, Mirsham, Amatzia and Carmit. The other two communities, Hanav and Shekef, are for people who want to help build up the area.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who gave his approval to the developments in late August, has said that the project would make the region a "genuine national and tourist treasure." But for environmentalists, it is a disaster that would destroy a vital environmental area that is already a natural tourist attraction.
The Gaza evacuees' position, however, is just the opposite - they believe that SPNI is using the environment as political leverage to oust settlers.
"They're setting up barriers against these people who are just trying to build their lives ... It's not only environmental - I feel that it's really persecution," says Dror Vanunu, international coordinator for the former Gush Katif community.
"Wherever the Gush Katif settlers want to build, they get one answer from the environmentalists: 'You're ruining the environment,'" says Rachel Saperstein, a future resident of the contested community of Hazan. "I believe they are more concerned with migratory birds than with Jews who have no homes."
Saperstein asserts that the Gaza evacuees would revitalize the region with their development, bringing in tourism and creating jobs for local residents - all in an eco-friendly way.
"We're going to be an example for the world of how a community can build with the ecosystem," says Saperstein. "We would like to have SPNI work with us and not against us, so the homes and the environment can live in harmony ... We're taking an area that is totally unpopulated and surrounded by Arabs, and we're saying, let's build a town that will bring in tourism ... where we can follow the footsteps of our biblical ancestors."
But Ben-David objects.
"If you're in need of a settlement, you don't have to go 10 km. into the middle of nowhere - at least build on a neighboring hill," he says, explaining that building in the area adjacent to the current towns, where there is space for more than enough housing for the evacuees, would mean less need to create infrastructure from scratch, less rural sprawl and hence less strain on the environment - plus the added benefit of quicker absorption.
However, when Moti Shomron, head of the future Hazan community, is questioned about the environmental value of the land that his town will destroy, he says simply, "So what?"
Ben-David goes on to describe the natural value of the region.
"In the spring, red anemones grow all the way out to the horizon," he says. "You see a landscape here that you can hardly see anymore."
Grapevines line the entrance to the region, heavy with Tali-brand grapes - some of the most expensive in Israel. Unexcavated stone remnants peek through the caked dirt of Tel Lachish; archaeologists believe the site to be as important as the Bar Kochba caves. Olive trees more than a century old provide shade along the road.
The region, host to an acute transition between desert and Mediterranean climates, is an essential indicator of the progress of desert spreading caused by global warming. With development, scientists will lose the region as a natural barometer.
While building the homes will not directly impact global warming, it will disturb researchers' ability to predict and measure the effects on the Israeli landscape and climate.
Construction would also harm the region's ecological corridor: a narrow window by which animals can freely migrate northward and southward and plants can easily disperse and spread. As a result, the widest variety of plants and animals are located there.
As of spring this year, a survey of Lachish found 60 species of birds, of which 50 use the location for nesting.
In particular, the region is home to the largest nesting area in the world of the short-toed eagle. To build there would disrupt the nesting patterns of this and and all other bird species that nest in the highest concentrations in the Lachish region from all over the country.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.