Construction of a rail link from Be’er Sheva to Eilat, aimed at opening up southern Israel to industrial development and tourism, was given state approval on Tuesday.
The National Council for Planning and Building authorized plans for the final and most contentious section of the railway — the route from Dimona to Hatzeva, which followed approvals of the Be’er Sheva- Dimona and Hatzeva-Eilat sections.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz welcomed the council’s decision, noting that the project will not only improve connections between the periphery and central Israel, but will also allow for the passage of goods from Asia to Israel via the Red Sea, and then on to Europe.
“The project will be a blessing to factories in the south, and will be a large and significant ingredient in Israeli export in the Negev and the Arava, and in tourism in Eilat and the south,” he said. The railway will also significantly reduce air pollution by reducing the need for trucks, and will directly contribute to the lives of the 700,000 people living in the south, he added.
In response to the council’s decision, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) warned that the plans posed a serious threat to nature.
“Unfortunately they sell us high-speed passenger trains in attractive packaging, but in practice, this is a destructive mega-project, which will transform the Negev and the Arava and all the natural assets and scenery unique to them into fields of infrastructure, while abandoning the Gulf of Eilat,” an SPNI statement said.
The railway project had to overcome opposition from environmental groups, particularly concerning the Dimona-Hatzeva stretch, saying it was potentially destructive to nature in a region that had thrived since ancient times.
An alternative plan advanced by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) to re-route the railway to minimize surface impact was turned down by the government, largely due to cost considerations.
The Eilat railway will include a 150-mile passenger route and a 160-mile freight route, traveling at speeds of between 135 mph and 160 mph, according to the Transportation Ministry. In addition to including eight operational stations and four cargo terminals, the new rail line will have five new passenger stations – at Dimona, Sapir, Ketura, Ramon and Eilat, the ministry said.