The wilderness and the dry land
shall be glad; and the desert shall
rejoice, and blossom as the lily. It
shall blossom abundantly, and
rejoice,yea, with joy and singing. Isaiah XXXV:1-2


Natural Landscapes

Landscapes in Israel have archeological, historical and cultural significance beyond their aesthetic and environmental worth. Thus, even nature reserves designed to protect a particular ecosystem often have biblical and historical associations, or archeological remnants. For Israel, protecting nature is part of reuniting with the nation’s past. The country has demonstrated its long-term commitment to conservation by setting aside nearly one quarter of the entire land area for preservation within the framework of district and national outline schemes.

Israel is at a crossroads of climatic and botanic regions. The main topographic formation is the Rift Valley, running north- south along the east of the country for about 400 km. Physical conditions along the valley change rapidly from the alpine environment along the northern border (at an elevation of 1,000 m), to the subtropical environment of the shores of the Sea of Galilee (where elevation is -210 m), to the Dead Sea (-400 m, the lowest point on earth), and the Arava, a desert plain extending south to Eilat at the northern tip of the Red Sea.

Topographical variations in the northern half of the country divide it into three regions: the limestone formations of the north and center (the Galilee Mountains and the Judean hills); the alluvial valley of the upper Jordan River and the valleys of Jezreel and Bet Shean, linking the Rift Valley and the Mediterranean from east to west; and the coastal plain, with sandstone ridges, sand dune areas, and fertile alluvial soils. The climate along the coast is typically Mediterranean, with hot, fairly humid summers and cooler, rainy winters.

The southern half of the country can be classified as desert, with precipitation less than 250 mm yearly (as low as 20 mm per annum at the southern tip of the country). The Negev desert contains unique features such as makhteshes (deep oval crater-like valleys drained by one main river bed), and magmatic metamorphic rock structures.

Israel’s location at the meeting point of four phytogeographic and zoogeographic zones the Mediterranean, the Irano-Turanian (steppe), the Saharo-Sindic, and the Sudanese gives the country a rich variety of plant and animal life. There are some 2,600 plant species (150 of them indigenous to Israel), 8 amphibian, 90 reptile, 480 bird and 70 mammal species.

Woodlands and Afforestation

Natural woodland covers about 225,000 hectares in Israel. Most of this is protected in nature reserves and national parks. About half of Israeli woodland is Mediterranean scrub vegetation, with only a small proportion (40,000 hectares) fully grown natural woodland.

Before 1948, uncontrolled grazing was permitted, leading to degradation of Israel’s natural scrub forests. Today, cattle, sheep and goat grazing in Israel is regulated, and confined for the most part to fenced areas. Of a maximum potential of about a million hectares, only 200,000 are currently being used for grazing.

In 1981, a National Outline Scheme for Forests and Afforestation designated 292 areas comprising 128,400 hectares for conservation as forest land. Long before the national outline scheme, decades of planting by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) had resulted in the regreening of many barren areas. The JNF was originally established in 1901 for the purpose of acquiring and developing land for Jewish settlement in Turkish Palestine. In addition to the 96,300 hectares of agricultural land purchased by the JNF before the establishment of the State, 2,000 hectares of land unsuitable for agriculture had been planted with over 5.3 million trees. By the end of 1991, the JNF had planted 190 million trees in Israel spanning 80,000 hectares.

Much of the JNF’s work today is concentrated in its afforestation branch, which is responsible for tending saplings in nurseries, planting new trees, thinning and tending forest growth, preventing fire, protecting woodlands against pests and diseases, and forest recreation.

The JNF’s early plantings were composed of predominantly pine and cypress in the north, and eucalyptus in the south. The Jerusalem pine proved to be fast-growing, drought-resistant, and able to take root quickly in rocky soil. In later years, the Jerusalem pine fell prey to a worm which caused wilting and degeneration of the tree trunks at first, followed by wilting of the upper branches and foliage a few years later; the eucalyptus was attacked by insects that bore into the trunks of weaker trees. These and other considerations including the need to adapt the type of tree to the different topography of Israel’s north and south, and the desire to reintroduce tree species which formed part of the biblical landscape have led to the planting of a broader range of species. In 1987, evergreens made up 65% of trees planted (of this, 11% was Jerusalem pine), eucalyptus 8.5%, oak trees 7.5%, and the remaining 19% a mix of Judas trees, acacias, olive, almond, and others.

Although diseases, pests, and pollution do cause damage to forests in Israel, the most serious damage is caused by summer fires. Because there are no lightning storms in Israel during the summer, forest and brush fires do not occur naturally. Instead, they are caused by man, whether by accident or intent.

In 1988 alone, 1,000 hectares of planted forest, 4,000 hectares of natural woodland, and 10,000 hectares of pasture land were destroyed by fire. Nineteen-eighty-eight is an extreme example, as arsonists set 1,200 fires, causing three times the damage that fires had caused in the preceding year.

Fire prevention measures include fire breaks (bald strips separating different parts of the forest, preventing the spread of fires once they are ignited, and permitting access for fire- fighting vehicles), watchtowers, and patrol vehicles equipped with communication devices. Burnt areas are rehabilitated, and planting is undertaken with redoubled intensity.

The success of afforestation in Israel cannot be overemphasized, whether in terms of recreation, prevention of soil erosion, or environmental quality. In the Negev desert, 5,000 hectares of forests have been planted. In less arid parts of the country, 75,000 hectares of green forests grace previously barren land. That is to say, 4% of Israel’s landmass is covered with planted forests. Every year, 2,000 more hectares are planted about 3.5 million trees. By the end of the century, the JNF expects to double the area of forests to about 150,000 hectares.

Combatting Desertification

The Negev desert covers an area of one million hectares. Although this represents over half the country’s land area, only 7% of the population lives there. Eight hundred thousand hectares are open, uncultivated areas, serving partly as nature reserves, pasture land, military training areas, and for transportation, energy and industry.

A few generations ago, the Negev extended further north than it does today. Greening strategies implemented since 1948 have succeeded in pushing the edge of the desert southward, and actually reversing the process of desertification. These strategies, implemented by the JNF, include specialized planting and development of water sources.

In the northern fringes of the Negev, an entire forest has been planted. Its trees grow on an average annual rainfall of 280 mm, in areas where evapotranspiration rates may reach 2,000 mm. In parts of the desert that receive even less precipitation, limans are planted. These consist of clusters of eucalyptus, acacia, tamarisk and other trees planted in reinforced natural water catchment basins. Single tree planting is yet another technique used to combat desertification in areas with even harsher natural conditions. Existing species are improved and new trees and shrubs developed to suit the climatic conditions of the Negev. The results are green scenery for shade and recreation, soil conservation, and erosion prevention.

The JNF’s new program for planting single trees or clusters of trees in areas where climatic conditions do not permit woodlands or shrubs to grow without substantial human intervention is known as savannization. Savannahs contain widely spaced trees and a continuous stand of herbaceous species, mainly perennial grasses. The combination of both types of vegetation is important, for periodic replenishment of water in the deeper soil layers is exploited by deep-rooted trees better than shallow-rooted grasses. Artificial savannahs can only be created by implementing water harvesting techniques in which water runoff is utilized to supplement the scarce winter rains. In one method, rainwater is collected and channelled along trenches ploughed in terraces across hill slopes to irrigate trees and shrubs. Another method involves digging mini-catchment wells alongside individual trees to collect winter rains, which can then permeate the soil and provide moisture to roots during the remaining dry months of the year. These are dug on terraced slopes, or at the foot of hills for maximum use of the drainage pattern for each topographical area. In some areas, trees are planted behind artificially created earth barriers to bank up runoff waters.

In light of the fact that less than 50% of rainwater in the Negev permeates into the underground water table, and most flows down gullies into the sea, new methods are being developed for water conservation. One of the methods used by the JNF is the construction of dams to enrich the existing aquifer by arresting the flow of flood waters, and letting them seep into the ground for subsequent pumping; another method is the construction of dams to catch runoff water.

Recycled wastewater, which cannot be used for irrigating edible agricultural crops, may be used for the planting of groves and parks in semi-arid areas. About 200 hectares of such areas are currently being irrigated with recycled wastewater. Brackish water (1,000 to 2,000 ppm of soluble salts) represents another unconventional source of irrigation water: it is being used for salt-tolerant crops and for trees in recreation areas.

Protection of Open Spaces Landscapes

Vital development needs in Israel have always posed a threat to the country’s open space landscape. Although many areas enjoy protected status, these tend to be too small to preserve Israel’s diverse ecosystems and unique and varied landscape features. In order to secure the biodiversity and the visual resources of the country, a new approach has been formulated in an effort to integrate development and conservation in areas which have not been granted protected status. This new approach seeks to direct development, both in terms of siting and features, to appropriate areas in ways which will not destroy the ecosystem, the wildlife and the landscape features of each of Israel’s small but diverse landscape units.

A methodology for conducting nature and landscape surveys and evaluations of Israel’s open space landscapes was developed to help realize this goal. In order to provide developers with the necessary conservation information, open spaces throughout the country were classified into four categories in accordance to their value, importance, sensitivity and vulnerability. The categories are (1) protected areas, deemed to be areas of special importance and high sensitivity; (2) open space landscape areas, which are important for the protection of natural landscape diversity and for recreational needs; (3) controlled development areas, which have intermediate natural and visual sensitivity and are thus partly appropriate for building and development, as long as landscape protection is taken into account; and (4) building and development areas, which have low landscape value.

In the face of accelerated population growth and industrial development, Israel’s nature and environmental bodies are according high priority to establishment or expansion of parks and open spaces, especially along the already congested coastal strip.

Parks, Reserves and National Sites

Nature reserves in Israel are managed by the Nature Reserves Authority (NRA), under the joint responsibility of the Ministries of the Environment and Agriculture. The law defines a nature reserve as an area in which unique and characteristic animal, plant or geological forms are preserved from undesirable changes in their appearance, biological composition or development.

The goals of the NRA are the conservation and cultivation of Israel’s nature reserves and natural assets, development of facilities for visitors to the reserves, protection of wildlife, promotion of environmental issues, and maintenance of Israel’s landscapes in their natural beauty, diversity, and integrity. The NRA has developed a computerized data base describing protected natural assets, protected areas, species, endemic plants and fungi. The authority conducts research on the impact of visitors on nature reserves, the interrelationships between various species, the introduction of controlled cattle grazing in woodland areas, and the reintroduction of once-indigenous animals that have disappeared from the area. It has also constructed special feeding platforms to serve Israel’s endangered raptors, including the Negev lappet- faced vulture, and a breeding center for predators such as foxes, wolves, hyenas and wild cats.

Nature reserves represent the entire spectrum of Israel’s unique natural heritage, including Mediterranean type forests; seaside landscapes; sand dunes; water landscapes; desert and crater landscapes; and oases.

Outside the confines of nature reserves, hundreds of plant and animal species (including ferns, wildflowers, shrubs, trees and fish) and minerals (rock formations) have been declared "protected natural assets." One of the NRA’s functions is to protect these natural assets, wherever they may be.

Nearly half of the 373 nature reserves designated on Israel’s national outline scheme have already been declared and developed, spanning about 530,000 hectares.

National parks are administered by the National Parks Authority (NPA), governed by the Ministry of the Environment. The law defines national parks as areas of scenic, historical or architectural value to be protected and developed for the purpose of recreation.

Within the framework of Israel’s National Outline Scheme for National Parks, Nature Reserves and Landscape Reserves, 110 sites have been designated as national parks: some are historic or archeological sites, others are recreation and landscape sites in the open countryside. Thus far, the NPA has developed and opened to the general public 41 national parks. Over 100 million visits to these national parks have been registered.

Policy issues regarding national parks and nature reserves are decided by the National Council of National Parks and Nature Reserves. The Council guides the NRA and the NPA, recommends areas for designation as parks or reserves, and advises the National Planning and Building Board on proposed changes to the national outline scheme. Its members include representatives of government ministries, local authorities, nature protection organizations and the public.

Israel’s National Outline Scheme for Settlement Sites designates 206 sites, which are defined as "a structure or group of structures or a part thereof, including the immediate vicinity, which are of national-historic importance with regard to the development of the settlement patterns of Israel." Many of these sites, representing the dramatic period of settlement and development since the Turkish conquest 300 years ago, are being prepared for official declaration and subsequent rehabilitation.

To further expedite conservation efforts, a voluntary public body, the Public Council for the Preservation of Monuments and Sites, was established in 1984.

Legal Framework for Nature Protection

In 1963, well before the establishment of an environmental administration in Israel, the National Parks and Nature Reserves Law was enacted, providing the legal structure for the protection of natural habitats, wildlife, and sites of historical and architectural interest. Pressure to revise the law recently resulted in the enactment of an entirely new version superseding the original law the National Parks, Nature Reserves, National Sites and Memorial Sites Law of 1992.

The new law broadens the authority of the Ministry of the Environment within the National Parks and Nature Reserves Council, and provides for protection of areas that are designated as national parks and nature reserves in the national outline scheme but which have not yet been declared and developed as such. The law also enables the NPA, upon the invitation of a local authority, to plan and administer parks outside areas designated as national parks. The law broadens the range of protection due to "protected national assets": with the new provision in force, damage to, as well as trade and commerce in, any protected asset, are forbidden. Finally, penalties for violating some provisions of the law have been expanded, increasing imprisonment terms from six months to two years for damaging or trading in a protected asset, for damage to a national site, or for behavior which contravenes rules governing conduct in a national park or nature reserve.

Other laws designed to protect natural values and promote the preservation of unique sites and landscapes are:

* The Antiquities Law, 1978, which empowers the Minister of Education and Culture to protect historical and archeological monuments and sites which pre-date 1700. Archeological sites are the concern of the NPA when they are developed for visitors; otherwise, they fall under the control of the Antiquities Authority of the Ministry of Education and Culture; and

* The Wild Animals Protection Law, 1955, which authorizes the Minister of Agriculture to restrict the hunting of wild animals, to issue hunting permits, and to appoint inspectors to enforce the law.