Construction Plans Pose Threat to Gazelles, Gerbils on Southern Shores

If sprawling sand dunes near Ashdod disappear, dozens of animal species may, too.

The great dune in Ashdod.
Ilan Assayag

On a tour of the Ashdod dunes last week, a group of hikers were surrounded by SUVs and motorbikes speeding past them with a deafening roar.

Iris Han, the new CEO of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel could barely conceal her frustration.

“I feel like I’m on a traffic island,” said Han. She called the police and asked them to stop the dangerous activity, but by the time we left the jeeps were still there, while no policeman was in sight.

The SUVs are not the only – or even worst – threat to the environment here. A construction plan to expand the city is endangering the scenery and a host of animals and plants.

Two decades ago the Ashdod municipality agreed, after a vigorous struggle by environmentalists, to renounce the dunes designated for construction on its southern outskirts. For 20 years dozens of species of flora and fauna have lived peacefully in these dunes.

The dunes north of Ashdod.
Illan Assayag

Although the arrangement wasn’t sealed in an official contract it was recognized by the planning and construction institutions. It was agreed that the natural areas in the city’s south would become sand parks for preserving nature and for hiking.

The Ashdod dunes are the northern tip of the coastal plain’s largest sandy area to remain intact in an area that stretches to the south of Ashkelon. The dunes are a habitat for 788 flora species, 119 of them unique to the area. They are also home to rodents that exist nowhere else in Israel, such as the sand gerbil, herds of gazelles and 34 reptile species, 10 of which are in danger of extinction, mainly the desert monitor, Israel’s largest lizard.

In the last two years the city drafted a new master plan, upholding the decision to preserve the southern dunes. But a few months ago the municipality announced that the dunes were also earmarked for construction. Officials said they were looking for housing solutions for young couples and said they would not build on the entire dunes but only on their slopes.

Following this decision, the Greens have resumed their campaign to protect the dunes.

“We believe the authorities should continue according to the master plan and not change the construction boundary in the south of Ashdod,” says Han.

The dunes north of Ashdod with the port in the background.
Ilan assayag

“There are housing solutions that wouldn’t suffocate the city, without building on the dunes. The city ought to support the Nature and Parks Authority’s plan to turn the large dune area into a nature reserve. In the past the city had agreed on this and now it is backtracking,” she says.

For years the Society for the Protection of Nature has brought tens of thousands of children from surrounding cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat, to the dunes, Han says.

“These areas have been recognized as worthy of preservation. The southern part of the dunes was declared a nature reserve. Now it appears all this can be revoked,” she says.

The dunes north of Ashdod.
Ilan Assayag

Han fears that the revived construction plan will lead to the renewal of another shelved plan, to build access roads to the new neighborhoods through the dunes, severing the area’s continuity that enables the animals’ existence.

The construction plans leave some of the dunes empty, but those too are threatened by the SUVs, motorcycles and dune buggies that are destroying the shrubbery, driving out wildlife and endangering hikers on a daily basis.

Last week, during Han’s visit, they sped past a group of hikers as though they owned the area, gesturing to the hikers with their hands to get out of the way.

“All the shrubbery has gone from the areas where the SUVs drive,” says Professor Pua Bar from Ben Gurion University, who has been researching the area for many years. “The landscape’s character is changing, the dune is disintegrating and it’s difficult for us scientists to follow it. There are other effects that haven’t been researched enough such as noise. It is highly likely that the trails they blast will provide convenient inroads for invasive plant species to spread.”

The city put up a sign near the dunes describing them as a nature site. But municipal officials say the police are responsible for dealing with the SUVs and other sand vehicles wreaking havoc in the dunes. The Nature and Parks Authority people, who are supposed to protect nature assets, watch helplessly as the bustling SUVs roar across the dunes. Their plan to preserve the dune as a nature reserve was rejected by Ashdod’s local planning committee.