Israel Environment Bulletin Winter 1997-5757, Vol. 20, No. 1


by Yoav Sagi
Chairman, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel

(Reprinted with Permission in Abridged Form from ERETZ Magazine No. 49, November-December 1996)

Everyone is affected by the profound allure of the great outdoors. It’s an instinctive sensation. Yet as our contemporary lifestyle leads us to interpret life increasingly through information supplied to us by professionals, we are taught to ignore such feelings. The acquistion of information has made us masters of data, and yet we still fall short of understanding the complexities of life itself. Is it possible that evolutionary benevolence has provided us with this mechanisminstinctprecisely in order to guide our actions when understanding fails us?

If that is so, we might try putting more faith in the sentiments of love and respect that we seem to possess for open spaces. They have value beyond the mere romantic. They are the bearers of an urgent message: Open spaces are an indispensable component of human lives.

Here in Israel, the sense we have that open spaces are inherently valuable becomes more intense as the landscape begins to disappear, eaten away by concrete and asphalt. We are a tiny country, the population of which has grown at the unparalleled rate of one million people per decade, a growth rate that promises not to lessen. On the other hand, the fact that we are blessed with unusually rich religious and cultural traditions about our landscapes gives virtually every acre added import.

This pair of characteristics has put a high premiumreligious, cultural, and commercialon every tract of available land in Israel, and has given us one of the highest population densities of anywhere in the world. Within twenty years, northern Israel (for our purposes, from Beersheba to Israel’s northern border, not including Beersheba itself) will reach the hair-raising density of eight hundred people per square kilometer. In comparison, the population density of Holland, considered the most populated country in the West (and not given to our high immigration rate) is four hundred people per square kilometer.

In spite of these pressures, Israel is frightfully wasteful of its land resources. The tendency towards immoderate consumption of land emerges out of our "culture of development," which harkens back to the days when a thinly populated country was trying to establish a maximum geographical presence, literally creating facts on the ground. At the time, holding on to land and defending its borders were the agenda of development. In time, the principle of "conquering" the landexpanding and building anywhere and everywhere possible, took on the significance of a sacred task.

The years have seen that mission accomplished, with a vengeance: we have transformed Israel into a place where open spaces are a more precious commodity than any other resource. Nonetheless, successive Israeli governments continue to encourage shockingly exhaustive land use. Gung-ho planners continue to spread developments out over vast areas instead of intensifying developments in existing cities and towns. Agricultural land, supposedly protected by the first amendment to the Planning and Building Law, has lost its special status and is being unfrozen in large quantities for developmenta maneuver that amounts to the government using public lands to generate revenue.

And so, after a short-lived Zionist effort to return to working the land as a national curative, the people of Israel has reverted to the occupation that dominated its stereotype in the Diasporaurban commerce. The Lands Authority, whose purpose is the management of public lands for the general weal, has become the largest of all land speculators. Lately, it has gone so far as to issue tenders marketing land for construction against the guidelines of master plans issued by the national authorities.

Successive Israeli governments have continued work on the multi-junctional, land-gobbling, megalomaniacal Cross-Israel Highway, a project that will exacerbate, rather than solve, the country’s traffic and transportation problems. At the same time, public transportation, especially rail transport, a particularly efficient use of land, is neglected.

These wasteful policies have already resulted in one-fifth of the state of Israel being covered by constructionin Tel Aviv and the center of the country, Jerusalem, and Haifa, this figure catapults to as high as eighty percent. If there is not a dramatic change in construction policies in Israel, the entire center of the country between Jerusalem, Ashdod, and Nazareth will be one continuous megalopolisno open spaces, no "green lungs." In time, the old pioneering song "We’ll adorn you [the land] in concrete and cement" will have acquired a nightmarish ring.

Do we want Israel’s nature and landscape-based traditions to disappear under concrete and cement, to be later revisited only in books, picture albums, or museums? Is it our fate to live in a vast city-state and to experience the irony of fulfilling our need for open spaces by traveling to other lands?

It may not be too late to stop the erosion of our land policies. We must not leave a land buried under cement and asphalt to future generations, though we do need to satisfy real developmental needs and serve the cause of economic progress and immigrant absorption. But how do we go about combining the needs for both development of the country and preservation of its open spaces?

The tools for protecting Israel’s open spaces already exist. The desire to protect the landscape finds its foremost expression in the first (and so far the only) comprehensive plan to that effect, prepared in the 1950s under the direction of architect Arieh Sharon. Sharon’s plan was the basis for National Master Plan 8, which designates certain areas as national parks and nature reserves. The plan, which has statutory standing, was further strengthened by the enaction, in 1992, of the National Parks, Nature Reserves, and National Heritage Sites Law, protecting some 6,600 square kilometers30% of Israel’s land resourcesfrom encroachment by developers.

Theoretically, this is a large area. But in fact, 68% of it is in the sparsely inhabited Negev and Judean Deserts, and 70% functions as army training grounds. In the north, where most of the Israel population actually lives, only 20% of the land is protected by legislationnowhere near enough to provide the necessary guardianship for the many natural treasures in that part of the country. Even if some open areas in this region are fiercely protected, as long as the areas between them are just as fiercely constructed upon (as they are currently), these nature reserves will be no more than "potted plants"reminding us of the existence of a landscape that is no more.

In the early days of the state, environmentalists energetically focused their attention on saving endangered species while extending protection to certain open areas with particular historical or natural value, such as the Carmel National Park or the Mount Meron Nature Reserve. Only later did they expand their activities to what became known as "unprotected open areas" (mostly agricultural lands and some other categories of land unprotected under the law). Some of these will eventually have to undergo some development. But the vague stand that some areas should not be developed will not be enough. Guidelines must be instituted to determine specifically what is allowed and what is prohibited. In recent years, the lion’s share of environmentalists’ efforts has been in this direction.

Israeli environmentalists have struggled to develop abstract concepts and practical tools to provide for the future of open areas not protected by law. Think tanks composed of professionals from various fields are developing models and conducting surveys to gather the data necessary to classify open areas according to their relative value and to determine how much development a particular area can undergo without inflicting irreversible damage or losing its unique natural character. The general premises necessary to advance the process were defined as far back as 1985 within the framework of a proposal submitted by the SPNI to the conservation and planning authorities, for preparing a national policy for the preservation and development of open space resources.

National Master Plan 22 for afforestation, put into effect in 1996, protects 1,600 square kilometers of planted forests, natural woodlands, and other open areas. During its formulation, the plan changed from a mere planted forest protection plan to one safeguarding other kinds of open spaces as well, reflecting a very significant change in sylvaculture in Israel and in particular, the activities of the Jewish National Fund. The JNF, with the important financial and land resources at its disposal, is now committed by law to base its activities on sound ecological principles and public supervision. Adherence to the provisions of National Master Plan 22 will mean a great deal to the future of these precious open spaces.

National Master Plan 31 is one of the results of recognition by planners that environmental issues must finally be confronted. It was hastily conceived in the beginning of the ’90s in the face of the enormous wave of immigration at that time. It was the first comprehensive national plan formulated with a high degree of awareness of the land as a limited resource, and it designated large open areas, including agricultural lands, to remain as such. Regional plans for Israel’s north and center reflect this trend.

The National Board for Planning and Building of the Ministry of the Interior has adopted the suggestion of the SPNI’s Council for the Protection of the Landscape and Land Resources and ordered the preparation of a policy paper on the subject of preservation of open areas. The paper will be based on professional surveys and evaluation of the areas in question. Hopefully, its recommendations will become a matter of national policy, guiding planners in providing maximum protection to open areas.

Together with the aforementioned national master plans, this policy paper is an all-important step in preserving our land resources. But it may not be enough to defend the inherent weaknesses in the planning system, which allow for breaches that permit development in sensitive areas. This is especially true when development is encouraged by government agencies whose actions often fly in the face of principles the government itself has formally recognized.

To attain our goals, a real turning point must be reached in the entire culture of development in this county. From the philosophy of "conquering the desert" we must move on to one of protecting our open spaces. New policies need to be adopted in both planning and legislation, and budget resources must be reallocated accordingly. Most importantly, the government decision-making process by which land is allocated for development must be restructured.

The principles and tools have already been developed. Will we be wise enough to implement and enforce them before our land is pulled out from under us?