Less than a month after the government named Mitzpeh Ramon one of six towns to be developed for tourism, the Israel Lands Authority recently issued a tender for resuming work at three abandoned marble quarries near its northern entrance.
The quarries are just 750 meters from the first houses and not far from the area where a multimillion-dollar hotel area is planned.
The ILA’s decision is vehemently opposed by a group of local residents, who for the past five years have been working to get the abandoned quarries turned into a park. They even have funding for it, from the state’s Quarries Rehabilitation Fund. But renewed quarrying would kill the plan.
Many residents also fear for their health, especially since the tender explicitly permits the winner to grind stone into gravel. That process produces microscopic particles that are extremely dangerous.
To protest the ILA’s decision, the activists considered blocking the main road to Eilat on Thursday. But in the end, they opted for a more creative protest: On Friday, several local artists will hold an exhibition in the town in hopes of drawing media attention to the issue.
“Quarries and tourism simply don’t go together,” argued Ezri Keidar, 45, an urban planner and leading activist. “A tourist will come to the city from the north, and what will he see at the entrance? Clouds of dust.”
The success of a new Facebook group, “Mitzpeh Ramon says no to the quarries,” shows that opposition isn’t confined to a few activists. Over the past few weeks, 1,300 people have joined the group, most of them local residents. And the town has only about 5,000 residents altogether.
Activists also held a petition drive at the local supermarket last Friday, to reach older people who aren’t on Facebook. They said they quickly collected 170 signatures, and stopped only because they ran out of forms.
A report by geologist Yaron Finzi of the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center found that the quarries are almost totally mined out, which is why they were abandoned. Only 8 to 14 percent of the marble found there, known as Jerusalem Gold, remains, he said, and it is poor quality. The activists say that increases the likelihood that the tender winner will grind gravel to recoup his investment.
Keidar said renewed quarrying would do almost nothing to boost local employment: Based on past experience, most of the work will go to Palestinian subcontractors. Moreover, he said, the ILA will get only three million shekels ($782,000) over the course of three years, a minuscule contribution to the state budget — “pocket change for a single Knesset member.” And while the municipality will get tax revenue from the quarries, it will likely be less than the anticipated 400,000 shekels a year, he argued, because the contractors will apply heavy pressure to lower the sum.
Mayor Roni Marom said he opposes gravel-grinding, but otherwise, he has “no problem” with resuming the quarrying. “The quarries will operate until 2018, and then we’ll develop the area as a tourist site,” he said.