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Israel to Go Ahead with Voa Project, Despite Rising Environmental Concerns

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Israeli leaders are determined to go ahead with construction of powerful Voice of America radio transmitters in the Arava region of the Negev, despite strong protests from environmentalists and evidence that the transmitters could pose a hazard to aircraft navigation.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on Thursday assured Malcolm Forbes Jr., chairman of the U.S. Board of International Broadcasting, that despite the “problems,” Israel would honor its 3-year-old agreement for construction of the station.

The transmitters still require permits from the National Planning and Building Councils.

Shamir stressed that Israel wants to strengthen its relations with the United States.

Forbes and U.S. Ambassador William Brown got similar assurances from Finance Minister Shimon Peres on Wednesday.

While some 200 environmentalists demonstrated outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, Peres pledged that the government would do everything possible to speed up the start of the $400 million project.

He told Ambassador Brown and Forbes that the “Forum of Four,” the four senior Cabinet ministers, have reaffirmed the government’s 1987 pledge that the project will go forward.

The four, in addition to Shamir and Peres, are Foreign Minister Moshe Arens and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

At a Tuesday news conference with Forbes and Brown, Communications Minister Gad Ya’acobi stressed that the transmitter complex would be an economic boon for Israel.

He claimed it would provide 550 jobs over the three-and-a-half-year start-up period, and 200 professional positions on a permanent basis.

Environmentalists, led by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Nature Preserves Authority and residents of the Arava region, are determined to block the project.

They say the 2,000-acre area of the station, with its nearly 900-foot high antennas — almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower — would ruin one of the few remaining nature preserves in the Negev, blocking scenic hiking trails and destroying the landscape.

They say the electromagnetic radiation generated by the transmitters would endanger the health of residents of the region and disrupt the flight of migrating birds.

COULD IMPAIR AIRCRAFT SYSTEMS

Moreover, the Israeli air force has acknowledged the radiation could affect the delicate electronic systems of advanced aircraft.

It has been learned here that high-frequency magnetic radiation from VOA broadcasting stations may have caused the recent crash of two of the West German air force’s advanced Tornado jets.

The United States reportedly withheld the information from the Israeli air force, which obtained the information from other sources.

Consequently, the Israeli air force plans to move its training base and firing ranges further south, thereby extending the environmental damage.

Israeli and American environmentalists have already urged President Bush to cancel the project.

In a letter to the president on Feb. 6, they noted that apart from “serious environmental problems,” the project’s strategic value is “highly questionable” in view of dramatic events in Eastern Europe and the warming of relations with the Soviet Union.

The letter to Bush was signed by officials of Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, National Audubon Society and the American Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

They have the support of a group in Congress headed by Rep. James Scheuer (D-N.Y.). In Washington, the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on foreign operations plans to hear testimony on the environmental concerns Tuesday.

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