Environmental 'David' stops Defense Ministry 'Goliath'

Greens halt building of IDF's biggest training base

tractor artillery north  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
tractor artillery north
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Attempts to begin construction on the IDF's biggest-ever training base were stymied by environmental groups on Wednesday. The Israel Union for Environmental Defense and Green Course obtained a temporary court injunction against the Defense Ministry until the case receives a hearing next week on the 19th of the month. Environmental groups strongly oppose construction of a new training base - in effect, a small city - at the Negev junction, just a few kilometers from the Ramat Hovav Industrial Park. Ramat Hovav houses 17 chemical companies, constituting over half of all chemical companies in Israel. According to the Union for Environmental Defense, the plant produces at least nine major air pollutants, several of which are classified by the government as poisons. Construction was moved up a day in an apparent attempt to avoid a confrontation with the environmental groups, which had planned a massive protest at the site for Thursday. That preemption prompted the Union for Environmental Defense to appeal to the Beersheba District Court and receive a temporary injunction on Wednesday morning. The Defense Ministry said it respected the court's decision and has suspended construction until a final ruling on the petition. The ministry said it was certain that given the opportunity to present a report on the alleged dangers involved in building the base there, it could convince the court to reject the petition and allow the work to continue. Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri, who is also in charge of developing the Negev, told The Jerusalem Post that there was no risk involved in having soldiers serve at the new base. He said that the base's establishment would "do wonders" for the Negev. "This will give a boost to the Negev and the economy," he said. "We wouldn't be building the base if we thought there was a real risk." Tzipi Iser Itzik, executive director of the Union for Environmental Defense, told the Post that they were not opposed to the army base; rather, "our complaints are against the government for making decisions without the proper planning procedures. We feel a bit like David facing off against Goliath." "This [court order] is an encouraging sign that things might be changing and the process will be handled differently," she opined. In response to criticism that they were interfering with former prime minister David Ben-Gurion's Zionist dream to settle the Negev, Iser Itzik hotly retorted, "We are the real Zionists who are making sure the Negev is developed with full consideration for the environment and with thought for future generations." The army base is scheduled to be completed by 2012 and will house over 11,000 people. It is meant to centralize training in one area and to replace the Tzrifin base near Rishon Lezion. The Defense Ministry has received much popular support for the idea because the project will fulfill Ben-Gurion's vision and bring much needed economic opportunities and growth to the underdeveloped region. The Union for Environmental Defense has welcomed the base as a lever for putting pressure on Ramat Hovav to improve, Iser Itzik said. "This is a great opportunity to clean up one of Israel's biggest environmental disasters," she told the Post. "The soldiers have a legal obligation to serve in the army, and we have to give them their basic rights, which [includes] the right to breathe clean air," she said "There is no approved plan from the Environmental Protection Ministry as of now to reduce air pollution from Ramat Hovav, which is a prerequisite for the government's decision to build the base." The Union for Environmental Defense appealed to the court last week to prevent the groundbreaking, because they claimed the Defense Ministry was not abiding by plans the government had laid out to reduce pollution in the area before construction. According to the petition, while the Committee for Security Installations Alongside the District Committee for Planning and Construction did have the authority to grant special dispensation to the Defense Ministry to build the base, issuing that permit was unreasonable for such a large undertaking. In effect, the NGO claimed, by receiving that special permit, the Defense Ministry had sidestepped all of the planning laws that normally govern building and which include extensive investigation of potential environmental hazards and damages. The environmental group's main concern is that, by building the base a scant few kilometers from Ramat Hovav, all 11,000 personnel who would eventually live on the base would be exposed directly to severe health hazards as the residents of the Negev have for a long time. "We have been fighting this fight for years, even before this army base was proposed, on behalf of the residents of Beersheba and the Beduin in the area. I am from Beersheba, my family still lives there, and they are suffering from Ramat Hovav," Iser Itzik added. Asked what their next step was, Iser Itzik said, "We want to make sure the bulldozers do not begin work until it is clear there is no threat to the residents of the Negev and the soldiers who are supposed to train there." MK Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor), head of the Knesset's Interior and Environment Committee, came down squarely on the side of the environmentalists. "I applaud the court's intervention. It would have been more appropriate for the Defense Ministry and the IDF to wait for the Health Ministry's report about Ramat Hovav before beginning construction," he said in a statement. Meanwhile, Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra met with industrialists and the local council of Ramat Hovav on Monday to discuss the steps needed to improve air quality, the ministry said Wednesday. "During the meeting, industry representatives made clear their commitment to cooperate to achieve the agreed-upon and necessary environmental goals. The minister was impressed by their commitment to meet their obligations so as to ensure the base would be up and running on time," the ministry said in a statement. Gil Ya'akov, executive director of Green Course - a student environmental activist group that has been heavily involved in the Ramat Hovav issue - told the Post on Wednesday that they had decided to take the drastic step of asking for a court order to focus efforts on cleaning up Ramat Hovav and not to attack the training city. "We hope that everyone will now focus on cleaning up Ramat Hovav together," he said. "The Defense Ministry has thrown a veil of secrecy over this whole project, and we want the planning and construction process to be carried out in a transparent manner," Ya'akov stated. "Finally, after years of trying, [the base] put the Negev on the map. We look forward to the problem of the industrial park getting real treatment instead of superficial efforts," he said. "We want an agreement with high standards that will require the industrialists to bring the area up to the standards of the developed world." He added that "Ramat Hovav uses chemicals and produces products that are actually banned in developed countries." Green Course plans to continue monitoring the industrial park. "We want them to analyze the environmental surveys that have been done and to investigate accidents and explosions that occur at the plant," Ya'akov said. Two months ago, an explosion at the Makhteshim factory at Ramat Hovav released noxious fumes into the surrounding air, requiring the highway to Beersheba to be closed for hours. •