Activists Block Bulldozers at Sand-mining Project in Southern Israel

Contractor begins work after environmental groups reject compromise by the Israel Lands Administration to quarry a smaller area of Samar dunes in the Arava.

Dozens of protesters from a number of environmental groups yesterday confronted the contractor who was to begin a contentious sand-mining project at the Samar dunes in the Arava.

Activists from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the students' environmental group Green Course and area residents physically blocked the bulldozers from beginning work.

protester facing off with a bulldozer in the Samar dunes - Yoav Galai - December 28, 2011
Yoav Galai

Police arrested nine protesters.

The contractor began work after environmental groups rejected a compromise offered by the Israel Lands Administration to quarry a smaller area.

Early yesterday morning the contractor, working for the Ben Ari firm that won the tender to mine the sand, sent a bulldozer and a truck to the site to begin work.

They were met by the protesters, who have been waging a battle against the work, claiming it will irreparably damage the dune's frail ecological balance.

The contractor, Yossi Harel, called the police after activists lay on the bulldozer's shovel and on the road leading to the quarry, delaying work for a few hours.

One of those arrested was Nir Papai, deputy director-general of the SPNI.

The activists said they would return this morning to continue trying to prevent the quarrying.

The current work is limited to half a dunam (about an eighth of an acre ) out of a total area of a few hundred dunams.

The Union for Environmental Defense, which has been fighting a legal battle against the project, said yesterday that it was checking whether the contractor had submitted plans for quarrying in stages before beginning work, as per his signed agreement with the Israel Lands Administration.

The chairman of ILA, Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias, said yesterday: "The ILA recognizes the great importance of protecting open spaces. However, it is clear to all that in an enlightened and developed society, balance is required between development and use of the land for real estate and for the good of the public. The tender for quarrying the Samar dunes was legally issued based on a plan that received all required permits and the contractor won the tender legally."

The ILA said yesterday: "In light of the foment by the green groups regarding the permit, the administration proposed a compromise by which quarrying would be significantly reduced to one area and limited to 138,000 tons of sand. After this compromise was rejected by the green organizations, it was decided to quarry two areas, with a total of 384,000 tons of sand. The ILA decided to allocate another area for expansion of the already existing nature reserve in another part of the dune."

The Environmental Protection Ministry has declared its opposition to the ILA's compromise.

The ILA said that the contractor was acting within the law and the environmental groups had to do the same, and should not be supported in their infraction by the Environmental Protection Ministry, which itself asks the public to obey the law.