One of the sites where Israel plans to build a gas reception terminal.
One of the sites where Israel plans to build a gas reception terminal. Photo by Tomer Neuberg
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The defense establishment is demanding that the state delay approval for the construction of gas reception terminals on a strip of Israel's coastline pending an examination of the facility's security risk.

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Haaretz yesterday that the state's inclination to issue a speedy green-light for the project, as per a request from businessman Yitzhak Tshuva, is liable to pose the same risk as "the [Haifa Chemicals] ammonia storage tank in Haifa Bay multiplied by 50."

Tshuva is a billionaire real estate and energy baron who owns a controlling interest in Delek Group, which is currently drilling at three offshore sites that are believed to hold significant reserves of natural gas.

Vilnai said the state should withhold authorization for the plan - which calls for the terminals to be built on the coast between Zichron Yaakov and Hadera - until the security authorities conduct a thorough check of all possible security dangers entailed in the project.

"Until we receive satisfactory answers regarding the security issue, we will not allow such a decision to pass," Vilnai said. "It would not behoove them to threaten me with timetables."

Recently residents in towns of the Hof Hacarmel regional council launched a spirited public campaign against Delek Group and its American drilling partner, Noble Energy, over the companies' plans to build gas reception terminals along the coast. The terminals are treatment facilities that will take in energy deposits from the sea so that it can produce gas.

The companies want to build two treatment facilities: a relatively small terminal whose function is to ease the pressure on the gas as it is channeled onshore through a pipeline; and a larger plant not far from the beach which will receive the gas from the smaller terminal. The second facility would then plug the gas into the national pipeline for distribution across the country.

Delek and Noble Energy are lobbying the state to approve the plan for the two terminals as soon as possible. The companies believe that any delay will hamper original plans to begin producing gas from the underwater fields by 2012. They argue that the state will totally exhaust its supplies of natural gas currently produced south of Ashkelon by 2012, which gives the terminal project greater urgency. Israel also imports natural gas from Egypt.

Hof Hacarmel residents protesting the terminals initially offered two central reasons for their opposition: the harm they say will be done to their quality of life and the environment; and the security risk in the event that an accident occurs at one of the terminals.

Now, the residents are arguing that the facilities pose an even greater security threat than originally thought since their location - above ground and near a heavily populated region - renders them an inviting target for rocket and missile fire from Hezbollah and Syria in the event of a war in the north.

They say reports of Hezbollah's acquisition of precision-guided rockets mean they are at even greater risk.

Aside from the extensive economic damage, such an attack would also devastate neighboring towns. The facilities are slated to be built in an area already home to sensitive energy infrastructure, thus possibly making it more enticing for an enemy to target, they say. Moreover, a successful rocket or missile strike on just one of the energy sites could damage the functional capabilities of other sensitive areas.

Hezbollah and the Lebanese government recently accused Israel of "stealing" the gas deposits underneath the Mediterranean.

Area residents said the companies would be better off building offshore platforms to house the gas reception terminals, an idea which the firms rejected due to what they say is the prohibitive cost and time it would take to build.

A number of retired senior Israel Defense Forces officers who live in the area, including Gen. (res. ) Ami Ayalon and Gen. Eyal Ben-Reuven have been recruited by the residents to present their case to Vilnai.