Only one coastal area remains in the country where you can see golden sands spread out to the horizon: the dunes between Ashdod and Ashkelon. Now that horizon is set to shrink because of plans to build a high-tech industrial zone on the southern outskirts of Ashdod.

The developer, Abu Yechiel Ltd., is currently in the final stages of securing approval for a plan covering some 400 dunams (about 100 acres ), including 130 dunams of built-up space. Environmental organizations claim the plan threatens severe damage to the area's unique sand dunes. In the coming days the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Public Forum for the Environment in Ashdod will be filing an objection to the plan with the southern district planning and building committee, and are calling upon other residents to take similar action.

In addition to the abundance of natural sand, the area boasts an unusually rich variety of animals, including many species that have adapted themselves to life in the sands. In the evening visitors can see foxes and gazelles roam freely. A glance at the ground reveals tracks left by dozens of rodent and reptile species, and the warren of burrows they dug.

Dr. Boaz Shacham, an ecologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says the dune region is home to unique species that are in danger of extinction, including Meriones sacramenti (Buxton's jird ), a mammal that exists only in Israel and the Sinai region. Shacham recently identified 10 reptile species in the area that are in danger of becoming extinct.

What makes this area even more special is an avenue of sycamore trees that grow along it. This avenue was already designated for preservation by previous planning committees. "This is an area of shelter from predators and from human activity that includes all-terrain vehicles," says Shacham.

But environmental organizations say that all this is destined to change when the industrial zone is built, along with events halls and coffee shops. "All the dunes that are here now will be excavated and disappear to make way for buildings," says Boaz Ra'anan, who until recently headed the Public Forum for the Environment in Ashdod. Ra'anan says the contractors will be able to sell the sand, which will constitute a substantial source of revenue for them.

The development pressures on the dunes region between Ashdod and Ashkelon are felt beyond the area earmarked for the industrial zone. In the opinion of scientists, even the declaration of its southern part as a nature reserve (the Nitzanim nature reserve ) does not prevent the dangers it faces.

"These sands are significantly affected by the activity that takes place in their immediate vicinity," Prof. Pua Kutiel of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev pointed out in an opinion she wrote about building the new industrial zone. "Infrastructure work or planting citrus orchards cause the introduction of plant and animal species that are not indigenous to the area and these compete with the local animals."

Kutiel says that preserving this region is not just a matter for eco-warriors: "It is important to remember that the area's importance does not come down merely to the desire of environmentalists to safeguard landscape and heritage. We are talking about a national asset that we all have an obligation to protect."

"There is something troubling about the SPNI opposing the plan," says Yossi Lahmani, the CEO of Abu Yechiel, which owns the land. "After all, we are talking about land that was already slated for small industry and workshops that can be the source of various forms of pollution. All we had to do was start building. Instead we conducted a lengthy planning process, in the course of which the land was rezoned for high-tech industry. The environmental entities were included in it and we determined that there would be no polluting activity in the area."

According to Lahmani, the land area of the planned industrial zone was reduced and it will be adjacent to the road and train station. The rest of the land will be officially designated a park and the natural flora will be preserved there. "We did a tree survey and determined how to protect all the trees, including in the built-up areas," he added.

"The fact that the trees will be preserved as protected enclaves on built-up land will not prevent the damage to the system as a whole," Shacham counters. "What will happen is that the development and construction will spill over into the depths of the dunes, with all the attendant disruptions to wildlife such as noise and lighting. Obviously, wildlife will not find shelter near the fence of an industrial zone."

"We are not opposed to all building in Ashdod and we consented, for example, to the construction of new public buildings in the city's south," says Shai Tachnai, the SPNI's preservation coordinator for the southern region. "In the case of the new industrial zone we realized over time just how important this area is. There are other areas in Ashdod where industrial zones can be built and this should be considered."

However, environmental activists concede that for now there is no alternative on the agenda. If the district planning committee is not persuaded of the importance of preserving the sand dunes, and if it is not presented with a practical proposal for an alternate site, it looks like an industrial zone will arise in the near future in the heart of the dunes south of Ashdod.