The cabinet is set to vote on Sunday on an ambitious plan to preserve nature across a wide swath of southern Israel, between the cities of Kiryat Gat, Ashkelon and Sderot.
The proposal will be presented by Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Ministry at a special meeting in Kibbutz Degania to mark the centennial of the first kibbutz's founding.
The plan envisions developing the 75,000-acre area into an ecological corridor combining open spaces, environmentally friendly agriculture and residential communities. An interministerial task force will be charged with establishing a special agency to manage the area.
But some farmers are concerned that it will place too many restrictions on them.
The proposal will not make the area a nature reserve. Rather, it will implement a nuanced master plan prepared by architect Ilan Izan. The plan is expected to receive final approval from the National Planning and Building Committee soon.
The five-year plan acknowledges agriculture as a factor in protecting the environment. It would encourage preservation of the soil, use of biological pest control and controlled grazing. It would also provide financial incentives to farmers willing to combine agriculture with ecology.
"The area has been divided into sections according to their sensitivity," said Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council head Alon Schuster, who also heads the agency currently responsible for the area. "In the most sensitive sections, there will be limitations on building new roads and infrastructure. Even solar power plants will be limited to preserve open spaces, and no new communities will be set up in the area: New construction will be adjacent to existing towns."
"In the future, this will be the most important, and indeed only, green lung between the metropolises of Tel Aviv and Be'er Sheva," he added.
Gilad Sharon, a son of former prime minister Ariel Sharon who now lives on the family's Sycamore Ranch, has filed objections with the planning authorities, saying the plan should not include the area south of the Yeruham-Sderot road, because the environment there is already damaged. But on the whole, Sharon said he was supportive of the plan.
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