Would it be wise to create a date plantation with a large water reservoir near Masada, or would it harm one of Israel's most important tourist areas?
Parts of the unique Dead Sea environment remain unscathed, despite the declining level of the Dead Sea and the scarring of the landscape due to mining. Now, the proposed date plantation has sparked controversy among conservation agencies over the best way to preserve what is left.
Proposed by Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which lies north of Masada, the project envisages a date plantation and water reservoir in the area of the Tze'elim stream. The area is of importance due both to the water supply from the stream and the location's proximity to Masada, King Herod's ancient fortress, which was a refuge for the Jews who made a last stand against the Romans in the first century C.E.
The plantation would replace the kibbutz's previous date plantation, which was abandoned due to the prevalence of sinkholes close to the kibbutz. Ironically, the sinkholes are the result of the receding level of the Dead Sea, itself a consequence of the diversion of water that feeds the sea.
Ein Gedi received government funding for a new date farm and irrigation reservoir in compensation for the damage it had suffered and is proposing to build them near the Tze'elim stream, an area designated for agricultural use in the area's master plan.
Other interests, including the Dead Sea Works, a mineral producer, and the Dead Sea Preservation Government Company, which was set up to tackle the flooding of the hotel district along the Dead Sea's shores, are in favor of the plan. Both need the soil which would be extracted from the date plantation to prevent industrial pools from flooding. The kibbutz has reached an agreement with the Dead Sea Works to hold off planting dates until the required soil can be removed.
Approval of plans for the water reservoir, upon which the entire project depends, is currently pending before the southern district's planning and building committe.
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) opposes the plans for the reservoir, saying that other options should have been considered due to the importance of the site to the regional landscape. Concern has also been expressed by Guy Shalaf, a landscape architect who works with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
"A landscape analysis shows that the Tze'elim site is more sensitive to development than two other sites that were looked at," Shalaf wrote in an opinion submitted four years ago. "It would be preferable not to develop it without fully examining the other sites. In addition, it is also suggested that the reservoir not be located where it would be visible from Masada, which would mar the experience of visitors to the site."
According to Shai Tahnai, the SPNI's representative on the district planning committee, an alternative site exists in the area of the Rahaf stream. He also claims that the earth to reinforce the banks of the industrial pools is available from elsewhere. "And it is in keeping with the district [planning] committee's policy to halt digging in river beds due to the environmental sensitivity of this activity," he said.
Yehuda Roth, who is handling plans for the date plantation on behalf of the kibbutz, said Ein Gedi's members had been "emotionally prepared" to build the plantation in the area of the Rahaf stream, but the site was under the control of the Dead Sea Works and the Israel Lands Administration had refused to transfer use of the site to the kibbutz.
For their part, however, sources at the Dead Sea Works say putting the plantation in the area of the Tze'elim stream would be better for the environment. It is preferable, they say, to extract earth at a site that is designated as agricultural land on the master plan, rather than causing damage to the landscape elsewhere.
The parks authority's southern district director, Raviv Shapira, also supports the proposed location near the Tze'elim stream, saying that the kibbutz had already been dissuaded from developing a nearby site that was more environmentally sensitive. "They will develop the plantation further east, where there was already damage to the landscape, whereas the western site will be turned into a nature reserve," he said.
"The plan is for the date plantation and reservoir to be as invisible as possible," Shapira added. "We presented the plan to the people at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and they supported it."
The SPNI's Tahnai acknowledges that his organization did not oppose the plan initially, "but we changed our position after understanding that there were other options. We think it involves real harm to the landscape. In the past, an Israel Electric Corporation facility was built there and then too they argued that it wouldn't affect the landscape. But it doesn't involve just the facility; there are also the electricity lines that lead to it. It will be the same with the reservoir because there will be other facilities connected to it and all of this will change the landscape."
The southern district planning committee ultimately decided on an additional investigation into the impact of the Ein Gedi project on the environment and the landscape. But it has not required that other alternatives be considered. This means that the committee will only reject the current plans if it is convinced that building the reservoir would cause particularly serious damage to the environment and the landscape.