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Protests at ministers' homes over J'lem hills building plan

Extinction Rebellion blocks entrance to oil pipeline company in Ashkelon

Environmental activists protest oil deal signed by Israeli state company and an Israeli-UAE consortium, as climate demonstrations are held nationwide over weekend

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Police intervene in an Extinction Rebellion protest against the Europe Asia Pipeline Company's deal with an Israeli-United Arab Emirates consortium to channel Gulf crude through Israel, from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, Ashkelon, October 17, 2021. (Screenshot)
Police intervene in an Extinction Rebellion protest against the Europe Asia Pipeline Company's deal with an Israeli-United Arab Emirates consortium to channel Gulf crude through Israel, from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, Ashkelon, October 17, 2021. (Screenshot)

Extinction Rebellion activists blocked the entrance to the Europe Asia Pipeline Company complex in Ashkelon on the southern coast on Sunday morning, causing traffic jams before they were eventually removed from the scene by police.

There was no immediate announcement by police of arrests.

Extinction Rebellion, a worldwide movement, uses nonviolent direct action to attempt to persuade governments to act on the climate crisis.

Other green organizations unfurled banners on highway bridges and at intersections throughout the country over the weekend to protest the EAPC deal and to call on the government to do more on climate change.

The activists were protesting against a widely unpopular and secretive deal signed a year ago by the state company and an Israeli-Emirati consortium to use the former’s terrestrial pipelines to move Gulf oil from the Red Sea port of Eilat in southern Israel to the Mediterranean port of Ashkelon.

The EAPC has a poor environmental record. Amongst other things it was responsible for Israel’s worst ecological disaster when an oil pipe burst and sent some 5 million liters (1.32 million US gallons) of crude oil into the Evrona Nature Reserve in the Arava Desert in 2014.

Seven years on, nature in the reserve is not showing signs of recovery and its ecosystem could collapse unless ways are found to clean the soil and allow the seeds of acacia trees — which support a wealth of species — to start germinating again, according to the conclusions of a five-year monitoring study released last month.

Opponents of the deal worry about potential oil leaks in the Gulf of Eilat that could devastate the coral reefs there and the city of Eilat’s tourism economy.  Leaks near Ashkelon would threaten the operation of key desalination facilities.

It is not clear who, if anyone, in government has seen the details of the memorandum of understanding.

The widespread opposition from scientists, environmental groups, residents of Eilat and many other cities, and the ministers of both environmental protection and energy, has pushed the government to review the agreement, although little is known about the discussions.

Oil seeps between desert bushes in the Evrona Nature Reserve, December 7, 2014. (Environmental Protection Ministry spokesperson/Roi Talbi)

Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv on Saturday, protesters massed outside the homes of Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg and Transportation Minister Meirav Michaeli calling for their ministries to vote against a transportation plan on October 19 that, if approved, will open the way for a massive construction project on Reches Lavan (White Ridge), a pastoral hillside with a popular natural spring just to the west of Jerusalem.

In March, an appeals subcommittee of the National Planning Committee rejected a plan approved in 2020 by the Jerusalem District Planning Committee for the construction of two tunnel roads to be built at the Ora junction, where four existing roads meet.

The plan for a split-level transportation system is aimed at relieving current traffic, allowing for the addition of a light rail line and serving the increase in private cars that will come with the building of Reches Lavan and perhaps other communities to be built in the Jerusalem hills in the future.

Artist’s rendering of the new neighborhood of Reches Lavan and the two-tier transportation system being proposed. (YouTube screesnhot)

A discussion on the split level issue will be held by the National Planning Committee on Tuesday morning, after which government ministry representatives will vote whether or not to give it the greenlight.

Opponents see the Reches Lavan plan as the opening shot for construction on many of Jerusalem’s green hills, which are peppered with natural springs and constitute an important green lung for the city’s residents.

Much of the development planned for White Ridge is connected to a national program to build 1.5 million housing units countrywide by 2040, with 297,000 of them in the Jerusalem District, to keep up with population growth.

Most of the units are supposed to come online via urban renewal, in which old inner-city buildings are pulled down and much higher ones are built in their place.

The Jerusalem district office of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel researched 4,000 plans and determined that this goal could be met by the capital without digging up the local countryside.

The problem is that replacing slums in inner-city areas with new build offers limited profit — and because the government has so far not been willing to incentivize developers financially (in the form of grants, subsidies or tax reliefs), it is offering instead what it calls “complementary land” on which such developers can make more money.

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