Econ C'tee recommends mining freeze at Samar sand dunes

Green groups pleased with committee’s decision to seek alternatives, preserve region’s wildlife.

By
June 24, 2011 04:16
4 minute read.
Samar sand dunes, north of Eilat

Samar sand dunes, north of Eilat 311. (photo credit: Uri Shanan)

 
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The Knesset’s Economics Committee has recommended that the Israel Lands Authority freeze mining of the Arava’s Samar sand dunes and look into alternative options for providing the sand necessary for construction in Eilat, among other projects, the committee said in a statement.

The Samar sands, viewed as the last dunes in the Arava Desert, are thought to be a continuation of the Sahara.

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The desert is home to animals whose genetic makeups are closer to their counterparts in Mali and Mauritania than to animals in nearby areas in Israel, according to Dr. Uri Shanes, senior lecturer in the Biology and Environment department at the University of Haifa and a long-time researcher of the sands.

Only 2.3 square kilometers of the original 11 sq.-km. plot currently remain, Shanes told the committee, according to the statement.

“In the sands, there is something special that needs exploration in the coming years, and there is also tremendous potential for tourism and scenery,” Shanes said.

Wednesday’s Knesset discussion, initiated by MK Eitan Cabel (Labor), featured participants from the Knesset, the Environmental Protection Ministry, the ILA and various environmental groups.

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“It is necessary to use the Samar sand dunes only as a last resort, but this is not currently the situation and it is outrageous to me that the vision is so short-term,” said Cabel, according to a statement from the committee.

A representative from the Planning and Development division of the ILA, David Dashen Deutsch, objected to what he called a cynical use of the words “the last dunes,” explaining that if Israel wants to build up Eilat, double the number of hotels, expand the airport and the Arava Road, sand is necessary, the committee’s report said.

When MK Yisrael Hasson (Kadima) asked if the state was turning to Jordan as a potential import source for sand, Deutsch responded that he knew nothing about the state’s appeal. But he said that experts had indicated this option would be more expensive than previously calculated, the statement said.

MKs Dov Henin (Hadash) and Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) suggested exploring alternative options, while a representative from the Ben-Ari group – which holds the tender to the area – said the company had continually been trying to withdraw its bid to the area, as the delay has caused more damage than a cancellation would, according to the committee spokesman.

Meanwhile, a representative from the Environmental Protection Ministry, Menachem Zalutzki, said the ministry adamantly opposed mining the sand dunes, and called the plan “destructive,” the statement said.

During an interview with The Jerusalem Post in May, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan said the ILA must “find replacements” for mining the Samar sand dunes, particularly in the Timna region or underneath the areas of the region that had been mined in the past.

“Samar is considered to have one of the most special biodiversities in the entire world. This is the last big dune you have in the Arava area,” Erdan told the Post.

“We spoke with Ben-Ari, who won the bid to mine there. He’s willing to give it up, but he’s afraid that if he doesn’t start the mining, the ILA will take away the funds he has already deposited for the bid,” Erdan said.

“We have to find a replacement method for bringing sand to Eilat,” he continued. “We don’t need to damage a place that is so important for its landscape and its special biodiversity.”

At the conclusion of the Economic Committee’s meeting, the members recommended seeking alternative options to supply Eilat's development needs. Meanwhile, it called for the Housing and Environmental Protection ministers to work with the ILA to bring an immediate end to the mining.

The committee also requested that the National Infrastructures Ministry pass within six months a national program regarding sand mining in Israel, and asked that the Regional Development Minister examine options for purchasing sand from Jordan, the statement said.

Environmental activists championed this decision, saying the biodiversity in the region was too unique to mine away.

“The ILA promised in the past to examine other options, and has not come through with its promise to date,” Shay Tachnai, nature preservation coordinator for the southern district at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, said at the meeting.

“As already proven, there are good alternatives to mining sand from the Samar – for example, using sand from areas already infringed and leaving the Samar sands natural.”

The Green Movement, whose members played an active role in pushing this decision forward, were also encouraged by the committee’s decision.

“The ILA has taken a position diametrically opposed to the principles of sustainable development. Its job should be the optimal management of national lands and not maximizing government revenues and selling off our most valuable ecological resources for the proverbial bowl of lentils,” Green Movement co-chair Prof. Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion University told the Post on Wednesday evening.

“The claim is that six trucks of sand would be produced per day for the next two or three years. This would have practically no impact on development in Eilat, but it would decimate a national treasure.”

Tal explained that an unlimited amount of sand could come to Eilat from Rotem, just two hours away; and like Erdan, he mentioned the possibility of taking sand from underneath the already mined areas of the Arava.

“We got a good decision today,” Tal said. “We’re delighted that the Economics Committee has adopted our position.”

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