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

NATURE CONSERVATION IN ISRAEL

In juxtaposition to its small land area, Israel is characterized by a wide range of physical conditions and by a rich variety of flora and fauna. Along its 470-kilometer length, Israel embraces landscapes that are normally separated by thousands of kilometers in other countries. Mount Hermon in the north boasts snowy slopes and alpine fauna and flora, while the Gulf of Eilat in the south, harbors spectacular coral reefs and colorful fish that represent the tropical zones. Lying between these two extremes are arid desert areas, lush oases, green Mediterranean woods and forests, and the lowest point on earththe Dead Sea.

Israel’s commitment to nature conservation is by no means a recent development. Concern for all living things coupled with prohibitions against environmental degradation may be traced back to biblical sources. Indeed, the first chapters of the Book of Genesis emphasize the vital link between humanity (adam) and the earth (adamah) and introduce the concept of stewardship by enjoining man to work the earth and to watch over it. Israel’s rebirth in modern times was sparked by this age-old commitment of the people to their land.

GEOGRAPHY AND DIVERSITY

Israel’s geographic location at the junction of three continents coupled with the climatic changes throughout the history of this region have been largely responsible for this country’s high diversity of species. The Pleistocene era with its strong climatic changes caused by glacial and interglacial periods left many relics of African invasions through the rift valley to the Dead Sea region, and from the cold north to the high mountains in the northern part of Israel. Israel is also a main migration route for palearctic birds and the only terrestrial meeting point for organisms from Europe, Asia and Africa. Over 150 million birds follow the migration route through Israel in spring and fall.

Israel is situated at the meeting point of three phytogeographical regionsMediterranean, Irano-Turanian and Saharo-Arabian and contains a diverse collection of herbaceous plants, especially annuals and geophytes, typical of all three. Within its small land area, two different and even opposing climate regimes are foundMediterranean in the north and desert in the south. The central part of Israel is a transition area between these two biogeographical regions where desert biota is replaced gradually by Mediterranean biota.

Species widely distributed over the entire Mediterranean climate region reach their southern limit of distribution in Israel, Saharan or Asian desert species reach their northern limits of distribution in this country while Irano-Turanian species reach their western limit here. The wealth of Israel’s biological diversity is expressed in some 2,600 plant species

(150 of which are indigenous to Israel), 8 amphibian, 90 reptile, 450 bird and 70 mammal species.

CHALLENGES AND SOLUTIONS

Of all global problems, it is widely believed that species extinction can have the most serious consequencesand it is irreversible. The problem is especially acute in Israel, whose diminutive size, momentum of development and population growth make the protection of precious natural resources and open space landscapes especially difficult.

While awareness of the need to protect natural and landscape resources has led to the emergence of a significant system of nature reserves and national parks, the small size of the country and the heavy pressures on its limited land resources have left few land reserves. As a result, protected areas are insufficient to preserve the nature values, the ecosystems and the unique landscape of this highly diverse country. While the declaration and development of additional nature reserves remains a priority, none of the declared reserves in the Mediterranean area is large enough to preserve entire ecosystems which encompass a variety of habitats. Only one area in IsraelMount Meronhas recently been declared a biosphere reserve (within the framework of the Man and Biosphere Program of UNESCO) and is able to preserve a variety of ecosystems.

In recent years, concern over the fast disappearance of the country’s open land spaces has led to new initiatives aimed at mapping Israel’s remaining natural spaces and clarifying their environmental sensitivity. The planning approach which is now being advocated calls for directing development to appropriate areas in ways which will not destroy the ecosystem, wildlife and landscape features of each of the small but diverse landscape units in Israel.

Today, ecologists and planners are more convinced than ever that a turning point must be reached in Israel’s development culture. The pioneering philosophy of "conquering the desert" must be replaced by a philosophy of open space conservation. This philosophy is now beginning to find expression in Israel’s planning decisionsboth as a result of the massive campaign launched by Israel’s nature conservation organizations and as a result of the dire findings on the disappearance of land reserves which have been published in the Israel 2020 master plan. If this country is to secure the economic benefit, ecosystem services and inspirational value of its unique biological diversity, open space landscapes must be preserved.