VOICE OF AMERICA: AN END TO A STRUGGLE
It was a long, drawn-out struggle, but in February 1993, Arava residents and nature lovers throughout the country finally had cause for celebration: the recent decision of the US administration to cancel plans to build a Voice of America relay station in Israel. "We are very happy that the threat to residents and wildlife has been lifted… We fought a just fight and won, though we were ranked against huge forces. Our struggle encompassed the world, and together with other bodies we prevented a rash and harmful decision from being made," reacted Yoav Sagi, chairman of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. The sense of satisfaction was shared by Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, who expressed his opposition to the project soon after coming into office: "The decision saved the Negev and returned it to the residents and to all Israelis," said Sarid, upon hearing the news. The project itself was born in December 1984 when Ronald Reagan, then USA president, applied to Israel for approval to establish a transmission station through which Voice of America and Radio Free Europe programs would be broadcast to the Communist world. A national masterplan and environmental impact statement (EIS) were commissioned by the National Planning and Building Board in June 1986 and the agreement itself was signed in June 1987.
News of the agreement drew the immediate reaction of environmental groups the most vocal being the SPNI and Arava residents. But their opposition was not blind; it called for the project to be carefully reviewed before a fateful decision is taken. Only after the risks were made known, did the stance come about: that this country is too small and densely populated to contain such a mammoth station, that the erection of the station would pose a major threat to local tourism in one of the last unspoiled desert areas, that the potential risk to human health and to millions of migratory birds cannot be easily dismissed. These arguments were countered on economic grounds; supporters talked of the economic boost which the project would afford the Negev area and the creation of hundreds of jobs in an area suffering from high unemployment.
As the authorities readied to bring the masterplan for final approval to the National Planning Board, a long and massive campaign was initiated in Israel by the SPNI and the region’s residents. It included widespread activity among the general public, the Knesset, the government and the national planning authorities and focused on the fact that the plan was brought for final approval before the required EIS was completed. Yet pressures by the government to accept the terms of the agreement proved too strong; the National Board approved the masterplan in June 1990.
This sequence of events, as well as the dangers embodied in the transmitter complex, led the SPNI and residents of the Arava Valley to lodge an appeal with the High Court of Justice. By July 1991, a unanimous ruling was made: no decision should be taken on the location of the VOA complex before making thorough studies on possible dangers to birds from electromagnetic radiation, as well as on the relocation of the Israel Defense Forces training zone necessitated by the construction of the transmitter station.
The SPNI fight was not limited to Israel. Dozens of European ornithological groups expressed their concern for the migratory birds, and the General Assembly of the IUCN adopted a special resolution in December 1990 calling upon the governments of Israel and the US to withhold approval of the project until full completion of the EIS is effected. From offices it shares with Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, and the National Audubon Society, the American branch of the SPNI petitioned congressmen and senators and interested the American press in the struggle.
In late January 1993, the Knesset environmental caucus called on the government to cancel the Voice of America project in the Arava. Over 70 MKs from across the political spectrum signed a letter to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin calling on him to halt approval of the project until the new US administration has had time to determine its position on the issue. "We call on you to listen to our plea, along with that of scientists, local residents, and the public, who have expressed their strong opposition to the establishment of the transmitter relay station in the Arava because of the harm it will cause to one of the last open spaces left in this crowded country, the quality of life of the Arava residents, and because of the danger to native animals and migratory birds," the letter said.
Just days before the fateful decision on the part of the American government, demonstrators from the SPNI and Arava settlements stood in the Jerusalem snow, shouting "VOA, Go Away," as members of the National Planning and Building Board met to discuss, once again, the fate of the station. While the Israeli overseers of the project said the survey by international experts showed no real harm would be caused to the birds, Environment Ministry representatives claimed the report was incomplete as the survey had not been carried out over a full year, the required meteorological report was incomplete and the final report had not included complete figures on the affected birds. Minister of the Environment Sarid instructed his representative at the National Board to present the ministry’s objection to the plan, on three grounds: "the harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation on humans, irreversible damage to the Arava landscape, and the expected damage to birds, particularly birds of prey".
Yet birds were not the only ones that would have been imperilled by the VOA transmitter. More perilous was the potential damage to the few open landscapes left in Israel, one of the world’s most densely populated countries, in the area north of Beersheva. The area designated for the station, 800 hectares of savannah-like landscape, would have been shaved of vegetation and of hundreds of ancient acacia trees, to be replaced by 160-meter towers and a kilometer-long line of unsightly antennas and nets. Damage to the landscape, waste of land reserves, risks to birds, opposition of Arava residents who feared for their health and the health of their children, risks to tourism, changes in the geopolitical condition, new technologies all these necessitated cancellation of the project. Cancellation was imperative not only for the sake of birds and natural assets but for the sake of the people of this land, in order to offer them open spaces for the renewal of their souls and to enable them to live a life in which the preservation of landscapes, heritage and cultural values are fully integrated.