Israel Environment Bulletin Autumn 1992-5753, Vol. 15, No. 4

GRASSROOTS ORGANIZATIONS COME OF AGE

Environmental activism is a new phenomenon in Israel. In the 1970s and early 1980s, citizen groups in this country did not keep apace of similar groups worldwide. But in recent years, spurred by growing environmental awareness in Israel and by the success of environmental activism abroad, concerned citizens have begun organizing to improve the quality of their environment. While most grassroots groups have organized around local environmental problems, several organizations have widened their horizons to deal with nation-wide issues as well.

EcoNet Israel

The 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl dramatically changed public attitudes to nuclear energy. Yet, in Israel, despite general concern, most citizens were ill-inclined to do anything. Not so Shirley and Herschell Benyamin. From their home in Karkur, a rural community in central Israel, the couple mobilized other concerned individuals and formed the Israel Agency for Nuclear Information

(IANI). The small organization began disseminating its findings via a bi-monthly newsletter, published in both Hebrew and English. Networking transnationally, the aim of IANI’s volunteers was to bring the Israeli public up to date on nuclear and alternative energy research from around the world.

As the newsletter became more established, IANI gradually broadened its frame of reference beyond energy-related issues. In 1990, the organization changed its name to EcoNet Israel, becoming one of the leading environmental action groups in the country. The now quarterly newsletter has a circulation that includes the press, Knesset members, government ministries, university faculty, health professionals and environmental groups as well as ordinary concerned citizens both in Israel and abroad.

EcoNet’s involvement can take several forms, from direct action and lobbying, through cooperation with other volunteer organizations and government bodies, to providing seed funding for projects, research studies, etc. Following are some of the activities in which EcoNet Israel has been involved:

  • collection and dissemination of material regarding the production of nuclear energy worldwide, including questions of safety, medical effects and waste management.
  • safety hazards of electromagnetic radiation and other non- ionizing radiation, including the effects of the proposed Voice of America transmission station on the millions of birds whose migration routes pass directly over the area.
  • establishment of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense

    (UED) in 1990 (see below). EcoNet provided funding for the first year of the organization’s operation and continues to work closely with UED.

  • establishment of an environmental library, housed in the Hadassah Medical School Library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
  • Setting up of a phone and fax hotline which directs inquiries to the correct source for help. If necessary, EcoNet follows up with action, such as finding experts for testimony and directly informing the relevant authorities.

    EcoNet has initiated several projects using loans and grants from Israeli and foreign donors. The Unit of Occupational and Environmental Medicine of the Hebrew UniversityHadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine has supervised some of these projects including: a nationwide radon testing program, a disaster impact study to prepare the civil sector to cope with industrial calamities, a public health study of aerial spraying of organophosphate pesticides, asbestos contamination, food irradiation, lead-free gasoline, and work with the Israel Standards Institute on standards of acceptable levels of air pollutants inhaled when using non-water based paints as well as standards for dishwasher and laundry detergents on bio-degradable chemicals.

    The Union for Environmental Defense

    Indubitably, the establishment of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (UED) in the summer of 1990 marked a milestone in the coming of age of Israel’s environmental organizations, in general, and in the use of legal means to tackle the country’s most pressing environmental problems, in particular. The UED is a public interest law group which provides free legal advise and representation to individuals and grassroots organizations, acts as a "watchdog" over government ministries to ensure that responsible environmental policies are developed and implemented, addresses local pollution problems through citizen suits and nuisance actions and serves as a national resource center for Israeli environmental law and environmental attorneys.

    In its first year of operation, the UED serviced over one hundred requests for assistance in combating environmental nuisances. It has succeeded in preventing the construction of an industrial park above sensitive recharge areas of the coastal aquifer, in opposing the discharge of partially-treated sewage by the City of Eilat into the Red Sea and in petitioning the High Court of Justice on the issue of air pollution in Haifa, thereby accelerating the promulgation of new air quality standards and amended personal decrees against the Haifa Electric Company and oil refinery. Current cases include a claim against the emission of intolerable noise levels from a night club located in a residential apartment block, opposition to a proposed motor artery ten meters from a residential suburb, and representation of residents of Beit Shemesh in a legal claim against the Nesher cement plant.

    One of the central tasks of UED is to foster a more aggressive government response to the widespread violation of environmental laws and standards in Israel. Rather than automatically filing a citizens’ suit, frequently the most effective way to help the public is to induce government intervention in respect to a pollution problem. By contacting the appropriate authorities and through a combination of tactics that include lobbying, press releases and threatened legal action, UED has often been successful in pushing government agencies to a more rigorous enforcement policy. Such policy has been effective, for example, in inducing the Rehovot municipality to file charges against a sports center generating noise exceeding the Israeli standard and in representing the citizens of the Western Galilee in their opposition to a plan to set up an industrial plant in their area, for fear of groundwater contamination. This year, special priority will be accorded to the issue of water quality as the UED prepares to implement a comprehensive strategy to confront the country’s severe sewage problem, especially in cities such as Jerusalem, Tiberias, Eilat, Ramla/Lod and Safed.

    In addition to its legal aid to individual citizens and environmental groups, the Union has been active in initiating environmental law studies and in promoting environmental legal education. One invaluable project was the preparation of a comparative survey of recycling laws throughout the world for the benefit of the Interior and Environmental Committee of the Knesset which is currently considering a draft bill on recycling.

    UED’s case load has been eased over the past year and a half as a result of the successful running of a Tel Aviv University Law Faculty seminar entitled "Environmental Legal Aid." During the first academic semester, last year, thirteen students worked in the UED offices, assisting staff attorneys in the provision of legal aid, and participating in a number of legal research projects. Dr. Alon Tal, UED director, teaches the seminar and describes the project as a "win-win" situation for both UED and students alike: "The increase in manpower provided by the students allowed us to increase the number of complaints investigated by our staff. Despite initial skepticism, the legal staff were genuinely impressed with the results, as the students showed great competence and enthusiasm for the work. The students often seemed pleasantly surprised to learn that the skills they had gained in law school could so readily be put to work helping people and heir environment."

    Students worked on such issues as tracking the sources of pollution along the Na’aman River and then uncovering respective unenforced pollution prevention orders, examining Israel’s pesticide policy, preparing a survey of "Right-To-Know Laws" around the world with the intention of drafting Freedom of Information legislation or regulations and preparing a guide for citizens who suffer from noise nuisances caused by air conditioners.

    The UED is currently promoting a fund-raising campaign for the establishment of a Citizens’ Laboratory, providing low cost analysis of key environmental parameters in drinking water, air and soil samples. Individuals or grassroots environmental groups concerned with pollution would be able to generate data for their work through the laboratory’s services at subsidized or "pro bono" rates. It is hoped that the laboratory will dramatically improve public access to reliable information about environmental quality; lack of such information has been one of the primary obstacles for environmental advocacy in Israel.

    The manifold projects implemented by the UED in recent years have made an indelible mark on Israel’s environmental consciousness, impressing upon citizens nation-wide that involvement and activism can yield positive results in the battle for environmental quality.

    Association for Environmental Quality (ALMA)

    Ecologically-inspired creative works, including a garbage-lined world globe (dubbed Globus) and a debris-filled human sculpture, are now recognized as the trademark of one of Israel’s more recent grassroots organizations. Their creator, Herzliya artist Daphna Margolin, along with professionals from varying walks of life, founded ALMA (the Hebrew acronym for Association for Environmental Quality) in May 1991. Like other grassroots organizations, the group grew from a handful of concerned citizens to nearly 150 members, most residing in the city of Herzliya and in nearby areas of the Greater Tel Aviv metropolitan region.

    ALMA inaugurated its formation with an environmental happening in Givat Haviva featuring exhibits on water conservation and recycling, organically-grown refreshments and a variety of lectures by environmental experts hailing from the academic world and the Ministry of the Environment. The focus of the group’s activities is on education and information. Members hope to create a vibrant community interaction between parents, students and schools through such activities as theatrical drama, artistic exhibitions and environmental games.

    Yet ALMA’s activities are by no means confined to the world of art and school drama. It has played a major role in the everyday "drama" of real life by helping groups of citizens combat environmental degradation in their communities. For example, with the aid of ecologists and lawyers on its volunteer staff, ALMA assisted residents of "Shchunat Ha-argazim" in Tel Aviv in their battle against the establishment of a transfer station for solid waste in their neighborhood. An environmental opinion on the ecological effects of a transfer station within a residential area was prepared and legal counselling was provided. As a result, the courts have issued a stop order against the project, pending the preparation of an environmental impact statement and other legal procedures by the Municipality of Tel Aviv. In yet another case, ALMA has presented a legal claim, on behalf of residents of Herzliya Pituach, against City Hall for the illegal burning of trash in the local garbage dump.

    At present, the association is involved in promoting the use of environmentally-friendly products and organically-grown produce, in encouraging industry to reduce the quantity of waste it produces, in forming an environmental youth movement and in advancing the recycling of plastics, paper and glass. This year’s focus of activities will be on recycling. The object is to educate residents, through such means as lectures and audio-visual presentations, to separate their waste at source and to promote the distribution of these waste components to the relevant recycling plants, through the operation of community focal points.

    ALMA maintains a growing library of information on environmental subjects and one of its members is working on a booklet on water conservation geared toward the general public, in collaboration with the Department of Water Engineering at the Hebrew University. Funds are raised through such activities as bazaars of environmentally-friendly items and arts and crafts.

    Green Star of David

    An ornithology group based in Rehovot, on the central coastal plain, recently decided to expand its activities to environment- watching in addition to birdwatching, when it encountered ever- increasing environmental degradation in the course of its walks. The group, whose members include scientists, businessmen and other professionals, formed a non-profit organization, "Ha-Efronim," Guardians of the Environment, in 1990. Its goal: to preserve nature and contribute to the solution of environmental problems while increasing the environmental awareness of the public at large.

    The group has undertaken a unique goalto award the title "Green Star of David – Guardians of the Environment" to deserving companies, factories, bodies and individuals whose activities embody a high level of environmental quality. The group hopes to reach the stage, within a few years, whereby the "Green Star of David" emblem will represent an honored membership card to all those entitled to it.

    Income from activities will be allocated for the preservation and enhancement of the environment, for supporting research, for backing initiatives in environmental legislation and for increasing the awareness of the subject in the educational system.

    The organization has already asked for the support and sponsorship of the political echelonmayors and heads of local councils, government ministers, Knesset members and even international figures involved in environmental issues.

    Future Prospects

    EcoNet, ALMA and Guardians of the Environment are representative of a new wave of change which is sweeping Israel’s environmental scene today. Marine scientists in Eilat have formed the Society for the Protection of the Red Sea Environment, members of a working-class community in Beit Shemesh have launched a campaign against a local cement factory’s particulate emissions, groups in the Western Galilee, Petah Tikva, Hadera, Bnei Brak, Tel Aviv and the Jezreel Valley have already formed citizen associations to tackle environmental problems in their area.

    These and other organizations, working hand-in-hand with the Ministry of the Environment and other environmental bodies, are Israel’s guarantee that environmental protection will figure ever higher on the country’s political agenda.