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Monday, 27 December 2010

Did first humans come out of Middle East and not Africa? Israeli discovery forces scientists to re-examine evolution of modern man

DAILY MAIL 27th December 2010

By Matthew Kalman

Scientists could be forced to re-write the history of the evolution of modern man after the discovery of 400,000-year-old human remains.

Until now, researchers believed that homo sapiens, the direct descendants of modern man, evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago and gradually migrated north, through the Middle East, to Europe and Asia.

Recently, discoveries of early human remains in China and Spain have cast doubt on the 'Out of Africa' theory, but no-one was certain.

Professor Avi Gopher, a researcher from Tel Aviv University's Institute of Archaeology, holds a pre-historic tooth at Qesem cave, an excavation site near the town of Rosh Ha'ayin

Professor Avi Gopher, a researcher from Tel Aviv University's Institute of Archaeology, holds a pre-historic tooth at Qesem cave, an excavation site near the town of Rosh Ha'ayin

The new discovery of pre-historic human remains by Israeli university explorers in a cave near Ben-Gurion airport could force scientists to re-think earlier theories.

Early humans: Middle Awash Aramis, Ethiopia, where the first 'modern' human beings were thought to have been discovered

Early humans: Middle Awash Aramis, Ethiopia, where the first 'modern' human beings were thought to have been discovered

Archeologists from Tel Aviv University say eight human-like teeth found in the Qesem cave near Rosh Ha’Ayin – 10 miles from Israel’s international airport - are 400,000 years' old, from the Middle Pleistocene Age, making them the earliest remains of homo sapiens yet discovered anywhere in the world.

The size and shape of the teeth are very similar to those of modern man. Until now, the earliest examples found were in Africa, dating back only 200,000 years.

Other scientists have argued that human beings originated in Africa before moving to other regions 150,000 to 200,000 years ago.

Homo sapiens discovered in Middle Awash, Ethiopia, from 160,000 years ago were believed to be the oldest 'modern' human beings.

Other remains previously found in Israeli caves are thought to have been more recent and 80,000 to 100,000 years old.

The findings of Professor Avi Gopher and Dr Ran Barkai of the Institute of Archeology at Tel Aviv University, published last week in the American Journal of Physical Anthroplogy, suggest that modern man did not originate in Africa as previously believed, but in the Middle East.

The Qesem cave was discovered in 2000 and has been the focus of intense study ever since.

A group of international and Israeli researchers have discovered pre-historic artefacts and human remains at the site that may prove the earliest existence of modern man was about 400,000 years ago.

A group of international and Israeli researchers have discovered pre-historic artefacts and human remains at the site that may prove the earliest existence of modern man was about 400,000 years ago.

Along with the teeth – the parts of the human skeleton that survive the longest – the researchers found evidence of a sophisticated early human society that used sharpened flakes of stone to cut meat and other impressive prehistoric tools.

The Israeli scientists said the remains found in the cave suggested the systematic production of flint blades, the habitual use of fire, evidence of hunting, cutting and sharing of animal meat, and mining raw materials to produce flint tools from rocks below ground.

'A diversified assemblage of flint blades was manufactured and used,' the Tel Aviv scientists wrote, describing the tools they found in the cave.

'Thick-edged blades, shaped through retouch, were used for scraping semi-hard materials such as wood or hide, whereas blades with straight, sharp working edges were used to cut soft tissues.'

The explorers said they were continuing to investigate the cave and its contents, expecting to make more discoveries that would shed further light on human evolution in pre-historic times.


Sunday, 26 December 2010

Armageddon Fortress May Hold Keys to History

AOL NEWS, Dec 26, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

MEGIDDO, Israel -- The Book of Revelation says the biblical fortress of Armageddon will be the site of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil at the end of time. Scientists believe it could also be the place where time begins -- at least for archaeology.

In a groundbreaking new project, scholars are using the rich archaeological remains that soar more than 50 feet above the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel to synchronize the clocks of the ancient world and create the first definitive calendar of human history.

Armageddon: Can Modern Science Solve Time Riddle?
Wikimedia Commons
The ruins atop Megiddo in Israel may look like just another hill, but the mound is man-made, containing the remains of 29 cities built one on top of the other from 3,000 to 300 B.C.

The word "Armageddon" comes from the Hebrew Har Megiddo, which means mountain of Megiddo, where Revelation says the final battle will take place. To the untrained observer, the modern-day site of Megiddo looks like one more hill in the Carmel mountain range near Haifa. But the vast mound is entirely man-made, containing the remains of 29 separate cities built one on top of the other by a succession of civilizations from 3,000 to 300 B.C.

More than a century of excavations has revealed a complex network of houses, stables, temples and palaces protected by massive fortifications and watered by two natural springs.

The treasures discovered at the site have posed as many questions as they have answered about the history of the ancient world. A vast, centuries-old temple deep within the mound is the largest yet discovered from that period in the Levant but its purpose and rituals -- including several large, perfectly round black stone altars just a few inches high -- are unknown.

It was around this time that stone inscriptions and records on clay tablets and papyrus began to record human history in the area. The Bible, the most monumental work of all, emerged during this period. Early archaeologists used the Bible as a guide, relating their finds to events described there and allocating them to biblical figures.

Scientists Think Armageddon Could Be Where Time Began, Too
The Megiddo Expedition
Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University looks over the archaeological dig which is located in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel. Finkelstein is the current director of the excavation.

The legendary Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin identified one impressive Iron Age gateway as the remains of a city built by Solomon in the 10th century B.C., but the current director of the excavation, Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, rocked the scholarly world when he declared the remains to be at least 100 years later. Finkelstein's theory threw the traditional view of the Davidic and Solomonic kingdoms into disarray and cast doubt on whether the biblical giants had ever truly been "kings" at all.

Now Finkelstein, together with Tel Aviv University physicist Eli Piazetsky, is spearheading an international effort to settle the chronology once and for all. A scientific conference at Megiddo, "Synchronizing Clocks at Armageddon," launched a project to analyze 10 separate Iron Age destruction layers using four state-of-the-art scientific techniques: radiocarbon dating, optical luminescence, archaeo-magnetism and rehydroxilation -- a new method pioneered in Britain within the last two years.

Megiddo is the only place in the world with so many destruction layers -- archaeological strata resulting from a calamity such as a fire, earthquake or conquest -- that resulted from a specific event in history.

Finkelstein told AOL News that the site provides "a very dense, accurate and reliable ladder for the dating of the different monuments and the layers."

"These destruction layers can serve as anchors for the entire system of dating," Finkelstein said. "Megiddo is the only site which has 10 layers with radiocarbon results for the period 1300 to 800 B.C.E."

Scientists hope that by analyzing the archaeological strata they can nail each layer to a specific year or decade, using the physical data from Megiddo to set the clocks of history and create a definitive timeline that can be used as a basis for accurately dating all archaeological sites.

Scientists Think Armageddon Could Be Where Time Began, Too
The Megiddo Expedition
Part of the Tel Aviv University team work on some of their discoveries at the archaeological dig which is located in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel.

It's an ambitious undertaking and one with profound implications for historical scholarship. A definitive timeline for the Levant could also unlock the secrets of ancient Greece, where specific historical dates before about 600 B.C. are basically guesswork. One conundrum that has perplexed scholars for years is a major discrepancy between the dating of sites in the Levant and those with similar pottery and other artifacts in the Aegean Basin.

"For many years the traditional dating of strata in the Levant were about 100 years earlier than that of the Aegean. There was similar pottery that we date to the 10th century and they date to the ninth. The question was, who's right?" said Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, director of the excavation at Tell es-Safi, believed to be the ancient city of Gath, home of Goliath.

"The problem is that the Aegean does not have an independent chronology for the Iron Age," Finkelstein said. In the absence of a historical record, dating of pottery from ancient Greece has relied on Greek pottery found in Middle East excavations. New doubts cast by Finkelstein about the dating of sites in Israel have thrown the ancient Greece timeline into further disarray.

The new project will take samples from Megiddo and other sites where dates are fairly certain and subject them to a battery of four different scientific tests:

Radiocarbon, or carbon-14 dating, measures the decline of a naturally occurring radioisotope to fix the date it was deposited at the site. It can be used for animal remains, plants and even olive pits. But it cannot determine the age of inorganic material like pottery; some materials, including wood, can give false results; and it requires a complex statistical calibration that on 3,000-year-old items produces inaccuracies of up to 300 years.

Archaeo-magnetism measures changes in the Earth's magnetic intensity and magnetic north over centuries to date pottery and cooking ovens. Optical luminescence is in its infancy. It measures the effect of the sun's rays on quartz particles to determine when certain minerals were last exposed to sunlight.

Rehydroxilation is a method recently developed in Britain that measures the amount of moisture absorbed from the atmosphere by oven-fired clay. Experiments suggest that it can accurately date bricks and pottery from 50 to 2,000 years old. The team has taken some 5,000-year-old pottery samples back to the lab at Manchester University to see if they get similar results.

They believe the method has the potential to become as important for ceramics as radiocarbon dating is for organic materials.

"Making the various tools for dating archaeological finds more accurate is very important," said Maeir, whose own excavation is part of the project. But he warned that rehydroxilation may not provide magic answers. Like carbon-14 dating, it involves a statistical manipulation that is likely to result in similar disputes between scholars.

"If they did reach a clear-cut model which would be agreed upon by the overall majority, it could have a whole slew of historical implications," he said. "It changes your understanding of what was going on from a political, from an economic point of view at these various sites. This could in theory have very broad implications for our ability to interpret the historical scenarios."

Monday, 20 December 2010

Slum-Touring Millionaires Put Off the Ritz in Israel

AOL NEWS Dec 19, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

JERUSALEM -- Ronald L. Gallatin is a retired attorney, a CPA and a former managing director at Lehman Brothers credited with creating some of Wall Street's most ingenious investment instruments. His wife, Meryl, is a prominent philanthropist in Florida charity circles. But when they visit Israel, they prefer hanging around soup kitchens and drug addict drop-in centers rather than fancy restaurants.

Over the past seven years, the Gallatins have given more than $2 million of their own money and raised more than $4 million from friends for a charity they set up "to fill in the cracks" left by social services in the U.S., Israel and Latin America. They also promise donors that 100 percent of funds will be donated to the causes listed on their website for Hands On Tzedakah, so the Gallatins also absorb all the administrative costs of their charity, including one or more trips each year to Israel.

They use their own money to seed all the projects and then encourage their donors to identify one where their donation should be applied.

The Gallatins are just two clients of Arnie Draiman, a travel guide with a difference. Draiman takes tourists off the beaten track to show millionaires and other would-be donors the darkest underbelly of Israeli society, helping them target their charity where it will have the most effect.

Arnie Draiman, standing high on a mountaintop in the northern Israeli city of Safed.

Arnie Draiman shows would-be donors the darker side of Israeli society, helping them target their charity where it will have the most effect.

"I want to teach them how to give their money away efficiently and effectively," Draiman said.

He said there was an increasing interest among tourists to Israel in welfare and assistance projects -- the flip-side of the sun-drenched beaches, nonstop nightlife and centuries-old religious culture projected by official government advertising.

"Our trips aren't about museum hopping," Meryl Gallatin told AOL News during a recent visit to Crossroads, a cash-strapped drop-in center for at-risk youth in downtown Jerusalem. "We're here to do due diligence on behalf of our donors. This is a different kind of tourism."

Not all of Draiman's tourists are millionaire philanthropists. Parents bring their bar mitzvah boys and bat mitzvah girls to tour projects as part of the preparation for their coming of age as a lesson in social responsibility. Newly married couples, flush with their own good fortune, want to engage with people less fortunate than themselves. American religious and community leaders also come to Draiman to see the reality of Israeli society so they can better understand the country.

At first, some projects didn't understand why they should host visitors who weren't about to make a donation. Over time, they have adopted Draiman's long-term view.

"I have countless examples of people who have visited a place and later gone back and included it in their wedding registry or a bar mitzvah boy has included it in his bar mitzvah project," Draiman said.

He said the key to the attraction of his tours is the term "tzedakah" -- an ancient Hebrew phrase that combines "righteousness," "charity" and "justice."

"I use the word in the broadest terms possible to include not only money but your time and your effort and anything that goes into making the world a better place to be," Draiman said. "A lot of it revolves around the money, the financial end, but it's more than that. Tzedakah is translated best as 'righteous giving' or 'giving rightly.'"

Draiman's work has brought him into contact with people he labels "heroes" -- ordinary individuals who help the people around them in an extraordinary way.

"If someone calls me up on the phone and says, 'I've got this really great place I want you to hear about,' I'll listen. But if you call me up and say, 'I want you to meet this incredible person,' my ears really prick up," he said.

Some of Draiman's favorite heroes include Bracha Kapach, the wife of a Jerusalem rabbi who feeds more than 1,100 poor people every week and more than 20,000 at Passover; the "chicken lady" who provided a fresh chicken every week for several hundred poor families even when she was well into her 90s; and Avshalom Beni, who uses dogs and cats to provide therapy for Holocaust survivors and children with behavioral problems.

When Draiman introduces philanthropists like the Gallatins to these unsung heroes, lives can be changed on all sides.

One recent afternoon, the Gallatins arrived at Crossroads, a cause they have supported for several years, for their first meeting with its new director, Robbie Sassoon. A skeptical Ron Gallatin grilled Sassoon about the center's projects and finances with a ferocity that would not have been out of place in a Manhattan boardroom.

"We treat making the decision of how our donors' money is spent as the highest level of fiduciary responsibility," Ron Gallatin said. "Our donors give to HOT [Hands On Tzedakah] because they trust us to have meetings like this one and know that we are making sure that every one of their dollars goes directly to help someone in profound need. Our donors know that HOT has no expenses and that we do not permit our partners to charge any administrative charges on any project we support. The donor is truly seeing his whole dollar helping the people he wants helped."

After a half hour, the former Wall Street guru sat back, pronounced himself satisfied and proceeded to write out a check that was much larger than the one he had planned. Then they were off to their fourth meeting of the day, in a five-day trip that contained no tourist visits at all.

"This is not depressing," Meryl Gallatin said. "It's the feelgood of making a difference. It's being able to go back after seeing a success story."

None of it, the Gallatins said, could be achieved with confidence without having someone like Draiman to advise them.

"Arnie comes with us on many of our site visits and interprets far more than the language. He helps us understand cultural nuances that can only be understood by someone living in Israel," Meryl Gallatin said. "You cannot have absentee management. We hold all of our Israeli partners to a very high standard of accountability and use Arnie to monitor them when we aren't here. What we are trying to do doesn't work without someone like him on the ground."

"I'm in their face, much more than if they filled out a form once a year," Draiman agreed.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

New Stars Light Up Bethlehem Nightlife

AOL NEWS, Dec 19, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- For as long as anyone can remember, young people have had nothing much to do in Bethlehem after nightfall. When the Israeli army and Palestinian gunmen finally quit the streets in 2005, restaurants and cafes continued to observe an unofficial 10 p.m. curfew, and anyone seeking some action had to head north to Ramallah, a tortuous, hourlong journey through military checkpoints and death-defying mountain roads.

"I spend my evenings at home on the Internet because there is nothing to do here for people our age," said Sally Zaghmout, 19, a student at Bethlehem University. "There are no bowling alleys, no cinemas, no big fields where you can go and play sports. It's really hard. If people of my age go to discos some gossip will start because it's a really conservative country and everybody knows everybody."

TABOO Restaurant and Cafe
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Twin brothers Firas and Ruslan Mukarker opened Taboo, the first venue in Bethlehem to stay open every night until dawn.

But this season, something is happening in Bethlehem. In recent months, a growing number of hip nightspots have opened around town, drawing packed crowds until well past midnight -- a signal, perhaps, of a new confidence on the part of young entrepreneurs and a shift toward some kind of normality after a decade of violence and economic privation.

Bethlehem's economy fell to pieces after the outbreak of the intifada uprising in September 2000. Tourists, who provide the city's main source of income, stopped coming. On Star Street, the traditional gateway to the old city, 88 of the 102 shops are still shuttered. Thousands of residents emigrated.

When the intifada ended in 2005, Bethlehem, recognized by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, was surrounded by an Israeli security barrier and military checkpoints that cut off its residents from nearby Jerusalem and deterred all but the most determined pilgrims.

The first signs of life after dark appeared in 2006 when a local entrepreneur opened a late-night disco, discreetly situated on the upper floor of a failed holiday complex in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. A hefty entrance charge and a couples-only policy kept out troublemakers. Now renamed the Layal Lounge, the club attracts crowds from all over the West Bank from Thursday to Saturday nights.

The same year, twin brothers Firas and Ruslan Mukarker opened Taboo, the first venue to stay open every night until dawn. Taboo's chill-out music, tiger-skin wall-hangings, soft red lighting, display of African masks and nude paintings announced a new generation of Christian Bethlehem nightlife.

"In 2006 it was the first place called a bar in Bethlehem, it was something really new," Firas Mukarker told AOL News. "We called it Taboo because there was pork and alcohol. No one had the guts to put pork on the menu. We were the first in Palestine."

But the successes in Beit Jala didn't catch on inside the city itself. The Palestinian economy remained depressed and unemployment in Bethlehem stayed close to 40 percent. In 2008, Mike Canawati, a prominent local businessman, opened the Square on Manger Square, opposite the Church of the Nativity. Spread over three floors and with an international menu, the Square brought the new nightlife into the middle of town for the first time.

"We started this new trend of staying open until 1 a.m.," Canawati said. "Two years ago there was nowhere else in this area open until that late. Now there are a few. We serve European food -- Italian, French. Our menu was the first of its kind in Bethlehem. We wanted to make something new. Not everybody wants to eat kebab and lamb chops and hummus."

Now the tourists have returned. Khouloud Daibes-Abu Dayyeh, the Palestinian minister of tourism, said that nearly 1.5 million people will have visited Bethlehem by the end of 2010, up 60 percent over last year and an all-time record.

Unemployment in Bethlehem has fallen to 22 percent. A dozen new souvenir shops have opened in recent months, and property owners are scrambling to turn every available building into accommodation for tourists.

Samir Hazboun, chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told AOL News the number of hotels has grown from six in 1995 to 31 today, with three more under construction and four others in the planning stages.

The new investors have benefited from a series of economic reforms that have made bank loans widely available to Palestinians for the first time in living memory. The result has been a massive 9 percent growth in gross domestic product over the last year and rising employment across the West Bank.

Jihad al-Wazir, head of the Palestinian Monetary Authority, said the new regulations had freed up some $750 million in loans for individuals and the 94 percent of local businesses that have four employees or fewer.

"There was a tremendous increase in lending," said Wazir. "The Palestinian economy is dependent on these very small-scale enterprises that are the drivers of the economy. It's great that the entrepreneurial spirit is catching up. People see other young kids doing the new projects and so they emulate it and so it starts a chain reaction where the overall impact is very positive."

Sami Matar and his business partner, David Salti, secured a loan to transform a shop wrecked in intifada gun battles, in the shadow of an Israeli military watchtower in the security wall, into the Divano Cafe and Restaurant, a classy new nightspot with a European menu that boasts the largest aquarium in the West Bank and the most extensive cocktail menu in Bethlehem.

"I wanted a mixture of something elegant and cool," said Matar, 27. "We wanted it to be friendly. The classic restaurants here aren't cool. I lived in the U.S. for two years. I wanted to create something like you would find there."

The result is a youthful mix of soft couches, subtle red lighting, dark wood paneling and European-style wall paintings where the elegant presentation of the food matches the ambiance. It appears to be a winning formula. Divano is packed every night, mainly with locals, and it's impossible to get a table after 6 p.m. without a prior booking. Divano serves about 200 every day and has to turn away another 50.

Outside the restaurant, the grim concrete wall and watchtower across the street surrounding the shrine at Rachel's Tomb is a reminder that the venture could be destroyed at any moment by a new outbreak of violence.

"It's a risk," Matar acknowledged. "I know that and my partner knows that, but we couldn't find a better place than this. We will trust in God."

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Harry Potter and the Deeply Appreciative Professor

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION REVIEW December 5, 2010


close NB-Harry Potter

By Matthew Kalman

More than a decade has passed since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, by an unknown author through a minor London publisher. It is hard to recall that before the blockbuster movies, before the chocolate frogs, before the Wizarding World of Harry Potter Theme Park, in Orlando, Harry Potter was neither a Warner Bros. franchise nor a commercial cliché but a series of fantasy stories that transported an entire generation of kids away from their TV sets and video games and into the delights of the old-fashioned printed word.

The sensation in Britain was so great that by the time J.K. Rowling's third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was published, in July 1999—two years before the release of the first movie—booksellers were asked to keep it off their shelves until late afternoon for fear that thousands of children would skip school to buy it. The British edition had an initial printing of a quarter of a million copies. In 2000, The New York Times created a new list of children's best sellers so the Potter series wouldn't crowd adult authors out of the coveted top 10 spots.

Not everyone was impressed by this youthful literary revival. Harold Bloom famously described the books as "rubbish." "The writing was dreadful; the book was terrible," he said.

Shira Wolosky disputes that assessment in The Riddles of Harry Potter: Secret Passages and Interpretive Quests (Palgrave Macmillan). Wolosky, an English professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, sees in the works genuine literary depth, invention, construction, and imagination...

(Full article here)

In Biblical Valley, 'David vs. Goliath' Battle Rages Over Oil Shale

AOL NEWS Saturday, Dec 4

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
ELAH VALLEY, Israel (Dec. 4) -- A baron from the prominent Rothschild family is teaming up with media mogul Rupert Murdoch in an attempt to break Israel's foreign oil dependency by mining vast amounts of oil shale in the unspoiled Elah Valley, where the Bible says David fought Goliath.

But their business plan has morphed into a family battle all its own because of some unexpected opposition from Lord Jacob Rothschild's second cousin, a celebrated eco-campaigner.

David de Rothschild gave up the chance to enter his family's multibillion-dollar banking business and instead has emerged as a "green" leader lauded by the United Nations and the World Economic Forum. He describes his cousin's plans to heat up rocks beneath the Judean Hills as "very serious" and has promised to investigate.

David de Rothschild
Andreas Rentz, Hubert Burda Media / Getty Images
David de Rothschild disagrees with his cousin's plan to mine oil shale in Israel's Elah Valley.

Oil shale mining involves heating the ground to transform buried, tar-like organic compounds into oil, and then extracting it. But the process is criticized for being an inefficient way of getting energy, because it takes so much energy to heat up the ground and create the oil, and then drill for it. Al Gore has described the practice as "utter insanity."

Such technology is economical only when the price of oil is very high, as is the case right now. And Lord Rothschild has said he believes oil shale mining "could transform the future prospects of Israel, the Middle East and our allies around the world."

His cousin David disagrees. "I as an individual actively discourage environmentally harmful activities," he wrote in a letter to Green Prophet, an environmental website focusing on the Middle East. But he acknowledged that he's "part of a large family with many diverse opinions."

"I cannot be held responsible for other people's actions despite my best efforts, even family members," David de Rothschild wrote.

Aside from concerns about the Rothschild project's energy efficiency, it would also involve bulldozing dozens of deep trenches, each more than two miles long, through some of Israel's most picturesque and archaeologically significant landscape.

The Elah Valley is where tradition holds that the young shepherd boy who would become King David faced off against the Philistine giant Goliath, and vanquished him with a slingshot and a pebble. In addition to disfiguring the biblical site, the oil mining project's trenches would cut through farms, vineyards and a network of 1,000 historic underground caves where the rebels of Bar Kochba hid from the Romans in the first century.

In August, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense filed a petition with the Israeli High Court demanding that the drilling license be revoked, charging that it was issued "without any plan and without any indication of the resulting effect on the environment."

The valley is zoned in the Israeli National Master Plan as green space. But under Israel's 1952 Oil Act, oil companies can bypass planning and other regulations in the hunt for energy resources. Israel's minister for environmental protection, Gilad Erdan, has promised to change the antiquated law.

Hagit Teshler, 44, a college lecturer who lives in the tiny community of Srigim-Li-On at the foot of the valley, was among more than 1,000 residents and campaigners who gathered Friday on a hill overlooking a test-drilling site late last month, to protest the venture.

"The industry that they want to build is an experimental industry that doesn't exist in any other place in the world," Teshler told AOL News. "In the U.S., it's very hard for them to get past the laws, so they come here. We don't know anything about the ramifications of this experiment, what damage it will do. They are heating the ground to very high temperatures. We don't know what gases will come out of this, or what damage will be caused to the air and the water.

"Most of the ministers, except for Gilad Erdan, are very much in favor of the oil industry because they believe that it will free Israel energy-wise from all our neighbors. But the oil that is produced is very low quality that will need a whole other industry to make it available as fuel for cars. Israel doesn't know what it's getting into," she said.

Mining the reserves of shale oil embedded in the rock would require a huge amount of electrical power -- equivalent to half of Israel's entire national supply, plus millions of cubic feet of water in a country entering its worst drought in modern history.

Lord Rothschild, based in London, is one of Israel's largest benefactors. He donates millions of dollars a year to social, educational and cultural projects in Israel through Yad Hanadiv, a family foundation founded by his ancestors. Major gifts include university fellowships, the Supreme Court building and a new National Library currently under construction.

Last month, Lord Rothschild and Murdoch, the American-Australian media tycoon, jointly acquired 11 percent of the Genie Energy Corp. unit Genie Oil and Gas Inc. for $11 million. Genie Energy, a subsidiary of the huge IDT Corp., owns 89 percent of Israel Energy Initiatives, which has an exclusive shale oil exploration and production license from the Israeli government for 238 square miles of the Judean hills southwest of Jerusalem, on the border with the West Bank.

This area, known as the Adullam district, was a major population center in biblical times and boasts a rich variety of significant archaeological sites from the cave network and Roman amphitheater of Bet Guvrin in the south, to the Elah Valley where David fought Goliath in the north. Today, it is an area of pastoral stillness, home to several small rural communities known as moshavim, with vineyards, olive groves, forests and farmland.

Israel Energy Initiatives believes that its shale oil cracking technology can free the world from dependence on Arab oil and turn Israel into an energy powerhouse able to produce 300 billion barrels of non-conventional oil at a cost of up to $40 per barrel.

Effie Eitam, a former minister of national infrastructure who is now president of Israel Energy Initiatives, told Haaretz that Lord Rothschild had "a strong history of supporting the environment. He asked a great many questions on this point, and was persuaded that when the pilot is completed in two years, very few question marks will remain."

But after a series of protests organized by local residents, Tafline Laylin, a Cairo-based analyst with Green Prophet, contacted David de Rothschild, urging him to persuade his cousin to withdraw from a deal that she believes could "unleash a miserable chain of ecological and social reactions."

"The in-situ technology requires that 5-kilometer-long trenches are dug in order to reach the underlying rock. This is then heated to 350 degrees Celsius and in part releases a gas that is converted to sulfur-rich fuel. Three hundred such trenches will be necessary to produce 300,000 barrels of oil (per day). Also, the safety of heating up the rock has yet to be established and could release at least 15 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere," Laylin warned.

"We urge the Rothschild family, and you as its eco-diplomat, to rescind its shares in what could be one of the most devastating projects to hit Israel's soil," she wrote.

The response from the young Rothschild was swift, setting the stage for a family showdown.

He wrote that he would "continue to write to not only family members but also other individuals and business about how their actions influence the world environmentally in the hope that they will place a greater significance on this area and seek clean alternatives that can help us tread more lightly."

"I do consider the 'Oil Shale Exploration' to be a very serious and pressing matter and something that I will look into further as a priority," de Rothschild wrote. "[I] promise to explore this matter further."