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


Nearly 40 years ago, Israel embarked on a massive development program aimed at providing housing and employment to the masses of new immigrants who arrived at its borders. Who in those days gave any thought to the ecological effect of rapid building on the landscape or on the flora and fauna of the country? Who opposed the intrusion of factories into picturesque residential areas? Who bemoaned the rampant picking of wildflowers?

At the risk of being regarded cranks, or even heretics, a small group of teachers, kibbutzniks and natural scientists formed the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) in 1953. The original group joined forces in response to a massive engineering project, the draining of Lake Hula and the surrounding swamps, aimed at ridding the area of malaria and providing rich, well- watered land for intensive agricultural development. The newly formed SPNI fought for its proposal that at least a few hundred hectares of untouched swamplanda small part of the drained area be left as a refuge for the flora and fauna of the valley and proclaimed a protected nature reserve.

The existence of a unique wetlands reserve and wildlife sanctuary in the Hula today is a direct result of these early efforts by the SPNI. But this success only served as a prelude to countless other achievements. In retrospect, one of the most successful public environmental education campaigns ever launched in Israel centered around the picking of wildflowers. By judicious application of stick and carrotlegislation for the protection of the nation’s natural assets and a major nationwide educational effortthe SPNI achieved its goal. Today, the country abounds with wildflowers; the law has rarely been invoked.

It is most fitting that the SPNI has adopted the Gilboa Iris as its emblem. This and other beautiful flowers, once picked in large quantities, were saved from extinction by the untiring efforts of Israel’s nature lovers, led by the SPNI. Today, the delicate purple flower of the iris, blooming in March and April, draws thousands of visitors to Mount Gilboa every year.

SPNI’s Outreach Programs

In order to introduce more people to an awareness of nature and to foster sensitivity to conservation problems, the SPNI, in its early years, began to organize guided tours into little-known wild areas and to scenic spots. A fine educational network was soon built up with 26 Field Study Centers, hundreds of youth clubs and comprehensive teacher training programs. The public responded, and the Society grew steadily to become Israel’s largest environmental non-governmental organization. Today it numbers over 45,000 dues- paying members, representing families from all strata of Israeli society.

Through a broad-based program of education, conservation, research and public action, the SPNI involves nearly 20% of Israel’s population annually in its activities. Jews, Christians and Muslims; young and old; civilians, soldiers and tourists have joined as members, making the SPNI the largest independent membership organization in Israel. The SPNI works extensively with schools, training teachers, developing curricula and coordinating classroom activities with field excursions. Together with Israel’s leading universities, the six SPNI Research and Information Centersfocusing on specific aspects of Israel’s flora, fauna and general landscape including mammals, raptors, birds, insects, reptiles, caves and plantsprovide essential data for developing conservation strategies through a variety of surveys and field research programs.

For the SPNI, children hold the key to Israel’s environmental future. In the 1960s, the focus of the "Don’t Pick Wildflowers" campaign was on the younger generation, in kindergartens and schools. Today, the SPNI hopes to have the same kind of influence in other areas of environmental quality, such as environmentally- friendly products, recycling and pollution prevention. This time, however, the entry is via television. This past summer, the children’s channel on Israeli cable television ran a 22-part series called "Green All Around," produced by the SPNI. The series revolved around a number of concerned children who set up an environmental group. At the end of each program, the children advised viewers to join the group and called upon their counterparts to write about harm to the environment and to make a list of five environmentally-friendly products. An expert from the SPNI was on hand to speak out on such subjects as ozone and noise, air and water pollution, litter and solid waste. One of the indications of the success of the series was the creation of a "Friends of the Environment" youth group, affiliated with Pashosh, the SPNI’s children’s magazine. In the future, the SPNI plans additional outreach activities for children, including computer games.

Environmental Protection Campaigns

One of the major goals of the SPNI is to initiate public action for the protection of threatened natural and historical sites in Israel. Beginning with its Hula campaign, the SPNI has spearheaded dozens of campaigns on behalf of nature protection and launched numerous struggles to prevent the destruction of unique ecological systems and landscapes through unwise development.

As a public representative on the National Planning and Building Board, the SPNI has been a strong advocate of environmental interests. Its activities have been backed up by public protest and legal action, including petitions to the High Court of Justice.

Perhaps one of the SPNI’s most difficult struggles, still ongoing, has been a campaign to delay construction of a $400 million Voice of America shortwave transmission station in the northern Aravah Valley. The SPNI, along with other environmental bodies and residents living in the vicinity of the site, have expressed concern over the station’s electromagnetic radiation on Aravah residents and on the millions of birds that pass over the area on their autumn and spring migrations. The transmitter station is to be comprised of a kilometer-long line of antennas and nets, standing 160 meters a high. A security perimeter totalling 800 hectares (2,000 acres) is to be sealed from the public. Moreover, the project would require the closure of one of the few remaining open wilderness areas in the Negev by the Israel Defense Forces to compensate the Air Force for training areas no longer usable due to the electromagnetic radiation of the station.

In August 1990, following a mass public campaign, the SPNI appealed to the High Court of Justice to halt the project on the grounds that environmental impact statements had not been prepared, as required by law, to ascertain the potential effect on migrating birds and the consequence of enlarging the training zone. The court ruled that no decision on the project could be made by the government or planning authorities until these surveys had been conducted.

In September 1992, after only one and a half migration periods were studied (instead of the two required by the court), the surveys were presented to the National Planning and Building Board. According to the SPNI, the surveys, incomplete as they are, find that there is a real danger to birds whose weight is over 4 kilograms. These include the lappet-faced vulture, which is barely managing to avoid extinction and the steppe eagle. Moreover, the survey does not cover the month of November, when 30,000 of the world’s 50,000 cranes fly over the area.

The consequence of enlargement of the training area is obvious: the disappearance of one of the most dramatic landscapes of the Negev, an area of about 48 square kilometers. As for the effects of electromagnetic radiation, experts are divided, but current policy worldwide is to strive to make the radiation as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA).

Michael Lipschitz, director of the SPNI’s Environmental Conservation Division, summarizes the SPNI position in the Autumn 1992 edition of ERETZ Magazine: "This is where we, the members of the SPNI, can have an impact. It is time to write to the governments of Israel and the United States and to newspapers and magazines, and make the dangers of this costly project known. If I were a crane or a lappet-faced vulture, I would remind every one involved that extinction is forever."


In recent years the SPNI has begun to broaden its orientation to include the education of the industrial community toward sustainable development. One notable achievement was the formation of the Industrial Association for Environmental Quality (ALVA) in 1990. Founded by Ormat Turbines Ltd, the SPNI and the Manufacturers Association of Israel, the association is open to industrial plants and local authorities who are committed to instilling an environmental approach into all branches of industry. Among its major objectives are:

  • encouraging and promoting energy and resource conservation and use of environmentally-friendly substances;
  • promoting research and surveys on the integration of business and the environment and disseminating information to the industrial community through literature and seminars and by means of a data bank on ecologically-acceptable products, on environmental standards and on alternative substances;
  • initiating, coordinating and advancing expertise and careers in the realm of environment and business including developing new positions for environmental and recycling managers;
  • initiating and promoting environmental legislation and regulations;
  • encouraging waste reduction, reuse, recycling and proper disposal.

    The association has begun publishing a newsletter, "Yarok Ta’asiati" (Industrial Green), distributed by the Manufacturers Association to its 1500 members. The newsletter provides information on innovative environmental management techniques, technological innovations, environmental standards and new legislation and aims to increase the awareness of industrialists and to enlist their participation in environmental protection.


    As a modern state with a three thousand year old history, Israel has always accorded high priority to the preservation of ancient relics so as to strengthen the bond between past and present. Under the 1978 Antiquities Law, historic remains of the pre-1700 period enjoy maximal protection, but later years, representing the dramatic period of the return to Zion, of pioneering effort and renewed settlement, have been virtually ignored until recently. Only following the destruction of the material heritage of recent centuries over a period of several decades did public attention focus on the problem.

    Public concern in the face of the thoughtless demolition and destruction of dozens of structures of prime importance to the recent history of Israel resulted in a debate on this issue in the Knesset in 1984, followed by lengthy discussions on ways and means of changing the prevailing state of affairs. Consequently, the Education and Culture Committee of the Knesset recommended the establishment of a Public Council for the Preservation of Buildings and Historic Sites and appealed to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel to place this Council under its aegis and cooperate in its activities. The SPNI, in turn, contacted several additional public bodies, calling for their cooperation and assistance.

    The response was positive and enthusiastic. In 1984, some 35 public, vocational and academic bodies agreed to join forces to increase public awareness and foster public activity aimed at influencing decision makers to preserve the unique heritage of the past few centuries.

    The Council is active in the following activities:

  • consolidating planning concepts which will serve as guidelines for the preservation of sites;
  • intensifying education regarding the settlement heritage in Israel within the context of the school curriculum as well as by tours, animation projects, lectures, study days, etc.;
  • investigating and researching the historic sites throughout the country in order to compile a detailed list of sites and determine criteria for preservation (e.g.historic importance, representative value with respect to various types of settlement, ways of life, architectural heritage, etc.)
  • initiating and encouraging the preparation of preservation plans and accompanying their implementation with professional guidance and counselling;
  • mobilizing resources required for the rehabilitation of worthy buildings and sites.

    The Public Council works on behalf of historic conservation in Israel with the aid of specialized committees on planning, education, legislation and economics and by means of regional committees serving a watchdog function. Hundreds of volunteers, comprising architects, urban planners, environmentalists and public figures, devote their time to the advancement of conservation and public awareness, to the preparation of a nation-wide survey of buildings and sites, to identifying buildings in danger of destruction and to actual rehabilitation work. Some 6000 trustees support the aims of the Council while countless new immigrants have been integrated into the Council’s rehabilitation activities.

    A major breakthrough in the preservation campaign was the promulgation of an amendment to the Planning and Building Law on site preservation, approved by the Knesset in June 1991. Under this amendment, historic site rehabilitation is integrated into the very law which deals with physical planning in Israel, so as to provide planners with a comprehensive and balanced view of the necessity for preservation within the framework of overall physical planning. The amendment places most of the responsibility for site preservation on local authorities and calls for the establishment of a Site Preservation Committee in each local authority to prepare, inter alia, a list of sites worthy of preservation.

    The Public Council currently runs three historic sites which serve the twin functions of visitor sites and education centers. These model sites include the Ayalon Institute in Rehovot, a subterranean structure which served as

    a secret munitions factory in the pre- State period; Mikve Israel, Israel’s first rural community dating back to 1870 in which a visitor center was set up to acquaint visitors with the historic landmarks of the site; and the refugee camp in Atlit, an ancient port on the Mediterranean which served as a detention camp for "illegal" immigrants during the British Mandate period.

    With the aid of an aware and involved public, these sites will indeed serve as models for the preservation of many additional monuments and structures, dedicated to preserving the past for the sake of the future.