Green groups seek to block mining in Samar sand dunes

Contractors intended to begin mining in Arava Desert's Samar sand dunes; green groups SPNI, INPA, Sabab'a move in to prevent project from starting.

Samara sand dunes protest_311 (photo credit: Tal Goldman / Sabab'a )
Samara sand dunes protest_311
(photo credit: Tal Goldman / Sabab'a )
While contractors had intended to begin mining the Arava Desert’s Samar sand dunes on Sunday morning, combined efforts from green groups and the Environmental Protection Ministry brought the plans to a temporary halt before they took off.
The sands, located north of Eilat, would be used after mining for construction in the nearby city, with the permission of the Israel Lands Administration. But environmental activists have been battling this decision for months, citing the fact that the isolated biodiversity with unique genetic makeups cannot be found elsewhere in Israel and are thought to be a continuation of plants and animals found in the Sahara Desert.
Cabinet to vote on construction of new Eilat airport
Of the original 11,000 dunams (1,100 hectares) of sand located in the dune area, only about 20 percent remain after previous mining spells. So when subcontractor Yossi Harel, who operates this project under contractor Daniel Ben-Ari, announced work would officially begin on Sunday, green groups went up in arms.
Early Sunday morning, a few dozen Arava Desert region and Eilat residents, as well as representatives from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) and the Center for a Healthy Environment in the Arava (Sabab’a) protested the construction and stood on the sands with banners. Any work being performed there would technically be illegal, because the contractor hadn’t “left enough time for moving the protected natural treasures from the area,” according to the INPA, whose spokesman told The Jerusalem Post that the wildlife would need to be moved to a nature reserve.
Very late the night before, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan had spoken with Ben-Ari, during which he said he succeeded in postponing the beginning of sand mining operations until he would meet with new Israel Lands Administration head Benzi Lieberman on Monday.
“I spoke to him loud and clear and he said he’s willing to give up and only get back the money he paid, a little less than NIS 2 million,” Erdan told the Post Sunday. “Tomorrow, I’m going to ask Benzi to cancel the contract.”
Harel, Ben-Ari’s subcontractor, confirmed work would officially be stopped on the site until Erdan and Lieberman’s meeting occurred.
“At the meeting they will decide what will happen,” Harel said. “That’s the whole story.”
During a June Knesset Economic Committee meeting regarding the sands, a representative from the Ben-Ari group said his firm had been continuously trying to withdraw its bid from the project, as the ongoing delay in mining had caused more damage than a complete cancellation of the project would have for the company.
Erdan said he hopes Lieberman will make a similar decision to one he made last week, in which he decided to nix plans to build a vacation village along Betzet Beach after much public dispute.
SPNI echoed the minister’s sentiments, expressing hopes Lieberman “chooses public interests over business interests and that he will reach a similar decision with respect to the Samar sand dunes, which will adopt other alternatives for the supply of sand for the construction industry in Eilat, and will maintain the unique gem of nature found in the Samar sand dunes,” according to a statement.
While the Environmental Protection Ministry recognizes the importance of finding sand for Eilat construction, alternative sources can easily be found and the need is not so dire that it cannot wait, according to Erdan.
“I agree that we need to supply sand for construction in the Negev and the Arava and Eilat,” the minister said. “But my ministry experts say that we have replacements.”
Some such alternative sands could come from either the Timna region or beneath areas of the Samar that have already been mined, where wildlife no longer exists, he explained.
Although Erdan said he did recommend the INPA transport the Samar plants and animals elsewhere prior to any work if the mining should occur, he noted “it’s quite clear that this is almost useless because they won’t survive the change.”
Since “no one knows what will really happen to them,” it would be preferable to just outlaw the mining period, according to the minister.
“Hopefully [Lieberman] will understand that we also have a goal to keep the biodiversity in Israel for future generations, so that our children won’t only see cars and roads and cement surrounding them,” Erdan said. “We want them to enjoy biodiversity and the environment. This is a very rare place, Samar, and if we can find a replacement without a huge cost to us, we can avoid such a mistake.
“It’s something that would be irreversible, and we have species that might disappear because of what we’re doing there.”