From: Megan Goldin, Reuters
Published June 30, 2005 12:00 AM

Gaza Settlers Stoke Ecological Fears over Beach Villas

NITZANIM, Israel — Standing on a sand dune, his hand shading his eyes from the bright glare of the Mediterranean sun, park ranger Yair Farjun prepares for battle as he surveys Israel's last untouched coastal reserve.

His fight is a bloodless one -- to ensure the survival of sea turtles, snakes and desert mammals whose habitat is being threatened by the relocation of thousands of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip to the nearby Nitzanim coastline in Israel.

"It will be a fatal blow to these sand dunes from an ecological point of view," said Farjun, 53. "If additional residents move here then they will demand roads to the sea, vacation villages, shops and gas stations."

Facing off against Farjun in a picturesque cottage in the northern Gaza settlement of Elei Sinai is Sarah Matzrafi, one of 9,000 settlers slated for evacuation from all 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank this August.

Matzrafi is eyeing the very sand dunes Farjun protects for her future home once she is forced to leave Elei Sinai in mid-August when the police remove her and other settlers under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" plan.


It's a politically charged battle pitting settlers against conservationists -- one that takes on a particularly personal note for Farjun and Matzrafi -- his younger sister.

"When it comes to my house and my responsibility to my children, no sea turtle will come between me and a decent quality of life," said Matzrafi, a 44-year-old mother of four.

The 6-mile stretch of coastline along Nitzanim -- between the southern Israeli cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon -- is the last untouched pocket of dunes in Israel where virtually no corner of the Mediterranean coast remains undeveloped.

For the Jewish settlers, Nitzanim is the perfect home, recreating their lifestyle by the beaches of Gaza.

They are pressuring the government to relocate entire settler communities from Gaza to orchards near the Nitzanim dunes so they can live among their former neighbors and hold on to jobs in rebuilt community centers and schools in the new villages.


But for conservationists like Farjun, moving thousands of people near a delicate habitat where animal and bird life face extinction presents devastating environmental consequences.

Houses near the dunes will bring domestic cats and dogs that could become feral and turn into predators of the desert gerbil, unique to Nitzanim, or turtles that return to the same beach every year to lay eggs in the sand, he explained.

It also means extra roads and people traipsing through delicate brush, damaging 500-year-old sycamore trees as well as changes to terrain that could destroy the delicate balance between the flora and fauna that inhabit the dunes.

"This area is one of the world's northernmost ecological niches of the Sahara," said Farjun, who has worked for 25 years to protect Nitzanim from developers eager for prime coastal real estate.

Farjun and fellow environmentalists have blocked plans to build a dozen villages for settlers along Nitzanim's coast.

Now they are fighting new government plans to build four villages on the southern outskirts of Nitzanim, a project which they believe could damage the ecosystem and break a long-standing taboo against developing near the sand dunes.

"The pressure will grow and grow on this small strip of land, until there is nothing left," Farjun said.

Many settlers such as his sister are determined to use every bit of political leverage they have to get the government into relocating their communities to areas similar to those in Gaza. Nitzanim's proximity and sea views best fit the bill.


Keen to avoid conflict with settlers planning to resist evacuation, the government hopes to win them over by dangling the prospect of villas on generous plots of land in Nitzanim.

It's an enticing offer that has resulted in nearly 500 families signing up to move to the Nitzanim area.

"The settlers say: 'Who cares about dunes when I'm being kicked out of my home. I'm going to be homeless and you're bothering me with petty concerns about turtles!"' Farjun said.

Raanan Boral, head of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel's conservation division, hopes to prevent the development of Nitzanim by tying up building projects for the settlers in red tape and in the courts.

"This is precedent setting because it's a group with political power using threats of civil war to get the state to give them land it was never going to give anyone," he said.

"What happens when the government evacuates more settlements in the West Bank in the future? Which nature reserves are those settlers going to demand for their homes?" Boral added.

In the garden she planted two decades ago, Matzrafi wonders where she and her family will live this August after the withdrawal from Gaza.

A house near the dunes of Nitzanim with a private beach, sea views and communal facilities is in her view a poor alternative to life in Elai Sinai but it's the only one she says she will accept. Standing in her way are environmentalists like her brother.

"I can't think about the evacuations. If I did then I'd cry so I've decided to stick to my job, stick to my battle which is to preserve this unique landscape," Farjun said.

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

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