State of Israel

Ministry of the Environment




"For lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone its way.
The flowers are seen in the land;
the time of the birds’ singing is come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land."

Song of Songs 2:11-12

Editor: Shoshana Gabbay

Ministry of the Environment
P.O.B. 6234
Jerusalem 91061


The Environment in Israel commences with a brief history of environmental attitudes in Israel. Beginning many thousands of years ago, the land, the water, and the mineral resources of the country were exploited. In some cases, this use of resources was carefully planned to preserve the environment. Nabatean innkeepers along the spice road, for example, developed an admirable water collection system designed to maximize conservation and regulate consumption under the arid conditions of the Negev desert. In other cases, Israel’s resources were overexploited. Under Ottoman rule, large tracts of forests were destroyed, and no thought was given to replanting, to erosion control, or to preservation of precious resources.

During the twentieth century, reafforestation and other measures to restore the environment accompanied the spiritual reawakening of the Jewish nation. And yet, the rush to develop an infrastructure and to accommodate startlingly rapid population growth after the establishment of the State resulted in fresh environmental damage. By the 1970s a central environmental authority the Environmental Protection Service had been created, and wide-ranging measures were taken to ensure that environmental considerations be incorporated into land-use planning. Environmental education became part of the school curriculum, and monitoring networks and pollution prevention patrols were established. In 1988 the Ministry of the Environment was created. Since then, environmental management has become more professional and more efficient. Authority over environmental affairs has in large part been transferred to the Ministry of the Environment, and the role played by other national authorities in selected areas of environmental management has been clarified.

The future presents a particular challenge to Israel’s environment. The 1990s have brought rapid population growth, which coupled with the demands of industry, agriculture, urban expansion, and transportation places increasing stress on Israel’s resources, thus intensifying the pressure to exploit resources without properly safeguarding the environment. The Ministry of the Environment believes that sustainable development can be achieved in Israel, that environmental degradation can be arrested, and that damaged areas can be restored. The realization of these goals depends on cooperation at all levels of Israeli government, and among all walks of Israeli society. These reflections on the future conclude Chapter One.

In Chapter Two, past and future trends in population and in the economic sector are examined in more detail. Israel experienced a very high rate of population growth during the decade following the establishment of the State, as immigrants from Europe and from the Middle East flooded into the country. Today immigration figures have again skyrocketed.

The population is concentrated along Israel’s Mediterranean coastal plain. Israel’s second and third-largest cities are found along this coast (the first, Jerusalem, is in the center of the country, further inland). Israeli industry, much of Israel’s agriculture, and the main transportation arteries are also centered in the coastal area.

Israel’s economy is neither predominantly agricultural nor predominantly industrial. Together these sectors employ about 25% of the populace. Government, tourism, business and other service sectors account for approximately 40%. Israel exports chemicals, metallurgy, electronics, textiles, cut diamonds, agricultural equipment, and comestibles. In general, Israel is shifting to more high-tech industries and to industrial activities with service characteristics.

Israel has substantial deposits of phosphates, bromine and potash, but few other mineral resources and almost no fossil fuels. Energy needs are met by imported oil and coal, and by innovative methods of solar power production. Israel is poor in water, and has therefore developed highly mechanized, high-input techniques and water-saving irrigation systems to support agricultural needs. Israel’s strongest resource is its people.

Chapter Three furnishes the reader with basic information about environmental problems affecting Israel. The chapter is divided into seven subsections, each ending with a description of the legislation and enforcement measures affecting the section’s topic. The first subsection reviews nature and landscape protection in Israel. The principal features of Israel’s geography and climate are described: the Rift Valley, to the east of the country, including the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea; the north and center, including the limestone hills of Galilee and Judea, the alluvial valley of the upper Jordan River and the Jezreel and Beit Shean valleys, and the coastal plain; and the largely desert southern half of the country.

The subsection also describes the steps taken to cover large tracts of land with self-sustaining tree growth, to re-afforest damaged woodlands, and to combat desertification. The success of these efforts cannot be over-emphasized. 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. Thus, 4% of Israel’s landmass is covered with planted forests, creating aesthetic beauty, providing space for recreation, helping prevent soil erosion and improving environmental quality for all. Throughout the country, natural habitats, wildlife and sites of historical and architectural importance are protected through a wide network of parks, nature reserves and national sites.

The second subsection in Chapter Three explains the complex issues surrounding Israel’s scarce water resources. The Sea of Galilee is the most important surface water resource, while two aquifers one along the coast and one in the mountains constitute Israel’s groundwater supply. These widely dispersed water resources have been consolidated into an integrated water supply network composed of canals, tunnels, pipes and reservoirs. Pollution problems affecting Israel’s water supply include increasing salinity, nitrates from fertilizers, organic micro- pollutants, and some fuel and heavy metals contamination. The state of Israel’s rivers, once very poor, is now improving as a result of rehabilitation efforts.

Sewage treatment, effluent reuse and use of other marginal waters are also covered in this subsection. Since the 1970s the sewage system has improved tremendously. The Tel Aviv metropolitan area now benefits from a sophisticated system of wastewater collection, treatment, storage and reuse. Installation of this system has prevented year-round pollution along the Tel Aviv shoreline, and has served to reclaim vast quantities of wastewater for agricultural irrigation. All-told, Israel reuses 70% of treated wastewater. Water conservation efforts, especially technology developed in Israel for this purpose, is also examined.

The third subsection in this chapter describes Israel’s diverse coastal and marine environments. The Mediterranean coastline, about 188 km, and the Gulf of Eilat, are among the country’s most valuable environmental assets. They house three major ports Haifa, Ashdod and Eilat representing gateways for the export of Israeli products and the import of supplies. The coasts draw tourists from abroad, and serve Israeli beach-goers and nature-lovers year-round.

In recent years, Israel has made significant progress in preventing pollution and protecting its marine resources. The Marine and Coastal Environment Division of the Ministry of the Environment is the national authority responsible for this area. Funds for marine pollution prevention are derived from fees on oil unloading terminals and ships calling at Israeli ports, and from fines collected from violators of marine pollution prevention laws. Achievements in the last two decades include a tangible improvement in the amount of tar along the Mediterranean coast, and a significant expansion in Eilat’s capacity for marine pollution control. Dumping of waste into the sea from vessels, aircraft and from land-based sources is strictly limited, and chemical pollution from industrial effluents, ships and harbor activities is carefully controlled.

Israel is an active participant in the United Nations- sponsored Mediterranean Action Plan, which provides an important forum for regional environmental cooperation.

Air quality is the subject of the fourth subsection in Chapter Three. The principal sources of air pollution in Israel are energy production, transportation and industry. The most problematic pollutant is sulphur dioxide. In addition to SO2, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, ozone, and total suspended particulates have been monitored regularly for two decades to ensure that ambient air quality standards are met. Revised standards, covering additional pollutants and modifying existing standards, have recently come into force.

Air quality in Israel is generally acceptable. Despite a 30% increase in national energy needs during the 1980s, SO2 emissions fell by 5% during those years. Carbon monoxide emissions have risen because of increased automobile use in recent years; but after 1993, when all new automobiles will be equipped with catalytic converters, emissions should decline. Emissions of lead particles have already diminished as a result of the gradual reduction of the lead content in gasoline in recent years. In contrast to these positive trends, increased demand for fossil fuels and increased motor vehicle use have resulted in higher carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.

To ensure the continued improvement in air quality in Israel, a comprehensive ten-point air pollution action program was launched in 1987, and expanded in recent years. The Ministry of the Environment’s recommendations include: updated air quality standards; stricter performance, emissions, and fuel quality standards; the use of alternative fuels; final ratification of the Montreal Protocol, which is almost complete; expansion and improvement of the monitoring network; continued research on air pollution control and air quality monitoring; fines and other administrative measures to strengthen enforcement of existing air pollution regulations.

In the fifth subsection, hazardous materials are discussed. Safe management of hazardous substances is one of Israel’s most pressing environmental concerns. Primary responsibility for the safe handling of hazardous materials rests with the Ministry of the Environment; some provisions fall within the authority of other government agencies. The Ministry of the Environment instructs local environmental authorities on the identification of plants producing or using hazardous substances, methods of storage, handling and disposal. The ministry has prepared contingency plans for industrial accidents involving hazardous materials. It is responsible for organizing professional teams to deal with such emergencies, and is in the process of creating a center which will supply information on all matters relating to hazardous materials.

Israeli law requires that all hazardous waste be deposited at the designated national disposal and treatment site at Ramat Hovav near Be’er Sheva, unless arrangements are made and specifically approved for appropriate treatment locally.

Because pesticides are widely used in Israel’s intensive agriculture, special provisions regulate their storage, use, and disposal.

The sixth subsection in Chapter Three describes existing provisions for the management of solid waste. A number of factors complicate the problem of solid waste in Israel: Israel’s hot climate and small size, and the high moisture content of the waste itself (which is largely organic). Ninety-eight percent of solid waste is deposited in sanitary landfills. To solve the problem of landfill management in Israel, the Ministry of the Environment has drafted a plan calling for a reduction in the number of landfills, and for the imposition of strict standards for siting, operation and maintenance of the landfills.

Recycling is not yet done on a wide scale in Israel, but it is expected to grow. Four studies have been undertaken to assess the economic, environmental and technological feasibility of recycling the various components of waste in Israel. Paper recycling has progressed further than other fields, with 69% of all local cardboard and paper production collected for recycling in 1991. A comprehensive recycling program has been initiated in one region in northern Israel. This successful program, which recycles all components of waste for five towns with a total population of 150,000, will serve as a model for future recycling projects.

The final subsection in this chapter reviews noise pollution in Israel, and relates what measures are taken to reduce noise. The major source of this type of nuisance is motor vehicle traffic exacerbated in Israel by the relatively old age of the automobile fleet and the reluctance of car owners to invest in proper maintenance. New roads are planned taking noise pollution into consideration; existing roads pose a more difficult problem, as sound barriers and other measures are not always feasible. Noise from airplanes taking off and landing also contributes to the level of noise pollution in Israel.

The Ministry of the Environment advises the national, district and local planning authorities on the use of noise abatement measures in land-use planning. Using sophisticated models prepared by United States government agencies for traffic control and airport management, the ministry has developed guidelines containing specific recommendations.

Chapter Four begins with a review of the history of environmental administration in Israel. The first central nature- protection body was an NGO, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, founded five years after the establishment of the State. During the ensuing twenty years, several steps were taken toward centralized environmental administration. Laws were enacted in the fields of water resources, the abatement of nuisances, the establishment of national parks and nature reserves, land-use, and licensing of businesses. Environmental projects and institutions such as the National Sewage Project and the Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) Authority were instituted during this period.

The most important step taken during this period, however, was the creation of the Environmental Protection Service in 1973. The EPS, which eventually became part of the Ministry of the Interior, was instrumental in the introduction of environmental impact statements into land-use planning, establishment of an inspection patrol for the prevention of marine pollution, up-dating and reorganization of enforcement methods for other environmental legislation, regulation and monitoring of air pollution from power stations and industrial plants, the incorporation of environmental programs into school curricula, cooperation in international environmental activities, and promotion of a number of important environmental laws.

The focus of Chapter Four, however, is the creation, structure and operation of the Ministry of the Environment. The ministry was established in 1988, and the former EPS’ authority transferred to it. Responsibility in a number of other areas of environmental protection were gradually transferred to the ministry: hazardous waste, national parks and nature reserves, pollution of streams and springs, solid waste, radiation, aerial spraying, pest extermination, and some aspects of sewage collection, treatment and processing.

The three levels of operation of the Ministry of the Environment are discussed in the continuation of the chapter. On the national level, the ministry is responsible for formulating an integrated, comprehensive national environmental policy and for developing specific strategies for environmental protection. The national level consists of a professional staff, the Environmental Research Institute, an inspection patrol, and external agencies which include the National Parks Authority and the Environmental Services Corporation. The ministry has partial authority over the Lake Kinneret Authority and the Water Commission. On the district level, the ministry coordinates between local authorities and national land-use planners, initiates regional environmental projects, and creates comprehensive environmental data banks. The local level serves as the implementing arm of the central government in carrying out environmental policy. Most municipalities include an environmental unit for air monitoring, advice in the fields of sewage, solid and hazardous wastes, business licensing and building permit applications, public complaints, environmental education, and local planning. The Ministry of the Environment vigorously advocates financial support, professional staffing and the provision of technical and scientific equipment to municipal governments through these local environmental units. Today, twenty-two municipal environmental units operate. Together they serve over 80% of the population. Plans have been drawn to establish as many as ten new environmental units in the next few years.

The subject of Chapter Five is environmental policy. Given the rapid rate of development, the focus of environmental policy is on preventive measures, with the land-use planning process constituting an important administrative framework for implementing environmental policy. Although environmental policy rests on the principle of prevention, it is essential to control pre-existing sources of pollution as well. Means of abatement currently in use include pollution fees which implement the principle of "polluter pays," helping to pay environmental expenses and encouraging polluters to look for new technologies to economize on resources and reduce pollution. Environmental education also forms an important component in environmental policy. Finally, environmental laws form the backbone of policy implementation.

In recent years, environmental litigation has expanded in Israel, both as a result of greater public involvement in environmental issues, and because new, stricter, more comprehensive legislation has come into force. Moreover, the concentration of legal authority for environmental issues in the Ministry of the Environment has made a major contribution to the implementation of environmental policy in Israel. This part of Chapter Four concludes with a list of the fifteen laws over which the Ministry of the Environment has full or partial authority. The descriptions include the name and year of enactment of each provision, its major components, and the methods used to enforce each law.

Three major subsections follow the subsection on legislation. The first of these is planning, containing an assessment of the land-use planning system in Israel on the national, district and local levels. Israel’s system of national outline schemes is explained, and examples of a few such schemes are presented. District commissions serve as links between national planning and local implementation. Representatives of the Ministry of the Environment participate in all deliberations of the district commissions. Local commissions are subordinate to the district commissions in terms of outline schemes, but they enact specific regulations regarding the conditions for use of land and buildings in the local area. Local planners are with increasing frequency considering the environmental implications of proposed development projects.

Environmental impact statements, which have been used in Israel since the mid-1970s, are essential tools in the land-use planning process. Regulations in effect since 1982 specify which kinds of projects require an environmental impact statement, and which cases leave planning authorities the option of such a statement. The Ministry of the Environment has the right to require an environmental impact statement in any instance it deems such a statement advisable, if the planning authorities themselves do not do so.

Geographical information systems are computer mapping or database systems which enable the user to present physical, statistical or thematic data in their geographical context. Such systems have been used by the Ministry of the Environment as an important planning tool since 1988. Three databases have been developed thus far: for the Mediterranean coast; for environmentally sensitive areas to the north of Ashkelon and much of the Negev; and for national parks, nature reserves, open spaces, areas of special landscape value, and afforested tracts.

The second major subsection lists economic tools available for environmental management, and describes the use of levies to produce revenues to finance environmental activities. Sewage fees, garbage collection fees, and product taxes for oil unloading, quarry materials and disposable beverage containers are examples of these.

The final subsection in Chapter Five concerns education. In 1982, in line with the Ministry of the Environment’s policy of broad dissemination of environmental information, environmental education centers were first established throughout Israel. These centers eighteen in number provide educational material for both teachers and interested citizens. They initiate lectures, seminars, environmental tours and training courses, and support nationwide environmental events such as Israel Environment Week, Nature Protection Week, as well as local recycling and cleanup campaigns. The major objectives of the environmental administration are to increase the environmental awareness of both the public and decision makers, to educate them toward responsibility and concern for the environment, and to enhance their ability to contribute to environmental improvement.

The subject of Chapter Six is environmental research and technology. Israel’s scarcity of natural resources has led to the development of a number of technologies, particularly in the fields of water treatment and recycling. Drip irrigation systems, which deliver the minimum possible amount of water directly to a plant’s roots, constitute one of the most widely used of these innovations. Desalination techniques have also been developed in Israel, as have wastewater treatment and reuse technologies. Solar energy is another field in which Israeli researchers and manufacturers excel. Domestic consumption of solar energy in Israel is higher than anywhere else in the world relative to total energy use. Energy from the sun is used to heat all new domestic water systems, to sterilize soil, to dehumidify greenhouses and evaporate chemical brine. Israeli innovations in other fields include alternative herbicides, water-toxin detection technology, and oil-spill control products.

Chapter Seven examines the role of non-governmental organizations in environmental conservation and education. Israel’s largest environmental NGO is the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, founded in 1953. This organization has 50,000 active members in Israel, and a large contingent of international supporters as well. It has built an extensive educational network, with twenty-six field study centers throughout the country, hundreds of youth clubs, six research and information centers, teacher-training programs, and hundreds of activities including walking tours, roving camps, lectures and seminars for all sectors of the population. The Society has achieved remarkable success in both public awareness and in on-the-ground conservation. Other national and local environmental groups are also described: some focus on education, land-use planning and improvement of urban environments; others concentrate more on single issues like air pollution; and some specialize in environmental litigation for the benefit of all. Finally, the Jewish National Fund, although not strictly an environmental organization, is noted for its afforestation accomplishments, and its success in reversing desertification in the south of Israel.

The concluding chapter in The Environment in Israel, Chapter Eight, takes the reader outside of Israel, to examine the country’s role in a global perspective. The chapter discusses ozone depletion, climate change, and the production of greenhouse gases. As a small country, Israel is a small contributor to these global trends. But as a citizen of the world environmental community, Israel is deeply concerned about these and other shared environmental problems. Israel has taken an active part in international efforts to conserve genetic resources, abate air pollution, enhance water and marine quality, and in general promote sustainable development worldwide.

In future, international cooperation will become more and more crucial in safeguarding the world’s resources. Israel hopes to be at the forefront of environmental endeavors in all fields, and looks forward to a day when an international environmental administration will operate smoothly and efficiently to guarantee our common future.