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Journalists who advocate national infrastructure and economic growth have recently accused environmental organizations of delaying the progress on the Trans-Israel Highway with their fight against the paving of the road. They maintain that the environmentalists' struggle has already greatly damaged the national economy.

The environmental activists would have happily acknowledged their guilt, but to their regret, their struggle did not cause any significant delays. Indeed, requests that they presented to the planning commissions to reexamine the plans for the road were often rejected on the grounds that they could delay the implementation of a project of national importance.

The events taking place along one of the northern segments of the Trans-Israel Highway demonstrate what is really delaying the paving of roads. They prove it would have been possible to find time to examine the claims of environmental groups and transportation experts concerning the road's plan, and perhaps limit the damage to nature and the landscape.

For nearly two years, the state has not succeeded in paving Segment 18 of the Trans-Israel Highway in the area of Ramat Menashe. The reason for this is the vehement struggle by the ultra-Orthodox against damage to graves that have been discovered there. The ultra-Orthodox non-profit organization Atra Kadisha explained its approach recently in a letter to the Israel Union for Environmental Defense: "It makes no difference to us how they bypass the places where graves have been found, whether by bridging over them, tunneling under them or diverting the route of the highway to the right or the left."

Environmental groups have for years called on officials to consider the possibility of turning a significant part of Segment 18 into a tunnel, in order to avoid damage in the area of Ramat Menashe, but the planning institutions have never agreed to thoroughly examine the proposal.

About two and a half years ago, two members of the National Planning and Building Council, Jewish National Fund representative Pinchas Kahana and Prof. Rachelle Alterman of the Technion, who has recently been awarded the Israel Planners Association Prize, suggested devoting three months to examining alternatives to the planned highway route, among them a tunnel. The national commission rejected their proposal on various grounds, among them concern about delaying the paving of the road.

Since then, a lot of water has flowed through Ramat Menashe streams, carpets of cyclamen and anemones have covered the hill, and the important national project slated to butcher the landscape and alter it irreversibly remains stuck, in face of the ancient graves. The time that has since passed could have been used to carry out various assessments and weigh the option of tunneling, which would provide an answer to the problem of the graves and save the landscape. This has not been done, and presumably the environmentalists' recent request that the National Planning and Building Council reexamine their proposal will also be denied.

The story of the tunnels is more significant than that of one section of the Trans-Israel Highway. Because of Israel's meager land resources and great development needs, infrastructure consortia and planning institutions have concluded that underground space should be used to pave roads and construct various buildings, and that even quarries should be dug below the surface and not into hillsides.

In recent years, several tunneling plans have been approved: a long Israel Railways tunnel on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line, tunnels for roads under the Carmel and a tunnel for the light railway in the Dan Region. Two weeks ago, the National Infrastructures Committee approved a plan to transfer part of the water pipeline to Jerusalem into a tunnel 17 kilometers long. The committee noted that the tunneling alternative is more costly by NIS 100 million but it has a clear advantage, in that it will take less time to construct and will prevent damage to the landscape.

And what about the Trans-Israel Highway? Recently the National Planning and Building Council approved an examination of a tunnel alternative on the segment of the highway that is slated to run adjacent to the Carmel and, if paved, would cause serious damage to the landscape. The commission's reluctance to carry out a similar examination, taking all the aspects into account, of the Ramat Menashe area, seems like a planning anachronism that should be rectified. It is not yet too late to try to save Ramat Menashe, and also enable the Trans-Israel Highway to link up with the northern part of the country.