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Peace Valley in spring. (Headquarters, the Protest to Save Peace Valley)
Peace Valley in spring. (Headquarters, the Protest to Save Peace Valley)
A relentless conflict between development and preservation

For Earth Day, leading green group sets out its 10 priorities for Israel

Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel’s goals for coming years include protecting disappearing eco-corridors so wildlife can continue to roam despite development

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The official blurb about the new city of Harish in central Israel lauds the green spaces around the town and promises a “Galilee-type quality of life,” just a short drive from the bustling center of the country.

But the city’s planned expansion threatens these green spaces and with it, a crucial eco-corridor vital to the rest of the country.

Located to the east of Hadera and Pardes Hana-Karkur, between Route 6 and the Green Line running along the West Bank, Harish is indeed located in a pastoral part of the country, surrounded by small Arab villages and just south of the Iron Forest.

From May 2016, when it officially accepted its first residents, to the end of last year, it grew to a population of 24,000, mainly secular and national religious, with lots of young families. (The courts ruled against the original plans to make it an exclusively ultra-Orthodox city).

Offering attractive property prices — a four-room apartment costs in the region of NIS 1,000,000 ($308,000,) significantly lower than similar communities closer to central Israel — it is expected to grow fourfold in the coming years. The Housing Ministry is pushing for expansion, and planning is in the hands of a special committee.

Construction of new residential buildings in the northern Israeli city of Harish, January 15, 2019. (Flash90)

The problem is that Harish is located within the country’s main ecological corridor. Running from the Carmel Mountains south of Haifa through Ramot Menashe, Western Samaria and the Judean hills and foothills down to the Negev, this narrow belt of open space changes as it moves south, from Mediterranean to desert habitats. It is used by a rich diversity of animals — from gazelles, foxes and jackals to reptiles and raptors to connect with one another (plants don’t move, but do need space in which to disperse pollen and seeds) and to move around, skirting areas of human development.

Plans currently being considered to expand to the north and east of Harish risk severing the link between the northern and central parts of this corridor, according to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI).

Maintaining that land within the city is currently sufficient to provide for growth, the SPNI adds that the special committee in charge of planning interprets its mandate too narrowly, failing to consider the environmental impact on the broader area.

Why corridors?

The theme of ecological corridors features in many of the 10 main campaigns planned by the SPNI and presented here for the first time to mark International Earth Day on Thursday.

These corridors are pieces of open space that include everything from forests and open heathland to streambeds and farmed land, that connect “core areas” of nature reserves and national parks and are critical to ensuring that wildlife retains a high degree of mobility and genetic diversity — a key to health and resilience, proper functioning of the web of life, and the long-term survival of species.

Ecological corridors in Israel, marked in green. (Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)

Populations cut off from one another become genetically poor and more exposed to disease, environmental change and eventual extinction. If sickness or fire breaks out, animals need to be able to flee.

Israel is tiny — roughly the size of New Jersey or Wales in the UK. But among OECD countries, it comes third-highest both in population density and in demographic growth, its population doubling every 30 years.

The country is also a hotspot for biological diversity, which means it is home to a relatively rich variety of species for its size. This is thanks to its location at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, and to its huge geographic and climatic variety.

Endangered Palestinian mountain gazelles like this one depend on ecological corridors to move around. (CC BY-SA 3.0 Bassem18/Wikipedia)

There is an ongoing clash between the need to accommodate the rising human population and preserve the country’s biodiversity.

The existence of such corridors first gained statutory recognition in 2016 within the framework of an amended National Master Plan for Construction, Development and Conservation (“TAMA 35”).

But the relevant maps are not sufficiently detailed to serve as a basis for protection.

Furthermore, according to a 2019 SPNI paper (in Hebrew) on the subject, there are no guidelines for the management of these areas to ensure that they are kept open and passable. The document mapped 140 of the most critical sections of corridor according to their narrowness, the potential of development plans to choke them off, and whether they are the only means of connection in a particular area.

According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the width of an ecological corridor should be no less than 800 meters — roughly half a mile. The mapping revealed that many sections of corridor were already narrower than this. Furthermore, it found a prevalence of many obstacles not visible to the planners, such as miles of illegal building and fencing as well as dumps of construction waste.

The research found that open spaces connecting “core” areas mostly comprised natural or forested areas in the southern district and Jerusalem, agricultural land in the center of the country and the area around Tel Aviv, and a mixture of the two around Haifa and in the north.

Assaf Zanzuri, the SPNI’s coordinator of planning policy, who co-authored the report, told The Times of Israel that regional planning offices were all now working on detailed maps and instructions for ecological corridors, although at different paces. Central  District planners had already deposited their plans for public comment, while the Jerusalem District was only at the start, he said. The plans would have statutory status, meaning that developers would bear the burden of proving that their plans would not damage parts of a corridor, he added. This would be particularly important in corridors that are already very narrow and where bottlenecks have been caused by development.

Around 25% of Israel’s territory is currently protected by nature reserves or national parks, but most are in the arid south of the country, while important habitats such as wetlands are barely represented. Here too, according to Zanzuri, the planning authorities are open to trying to increase protected spaces.

Little progress is being made, however, on another important requirement, Zanzuri said — the appointment of a body or bodies to manage the corridors and ensure that they stay open.

Golden Eagle. (Yoav Perlman)

Biodiversity: Why should we care?

Biodiversity — the word combines biological and diversity — is the key to a habitable world for wildlife, including humans. Plants, for example, provide oxygen, help keep our water clean and hold the earth together, preventing landslides. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, help to regulate temperature, and “lift” water to the skies from which it falls as rain. Insects pollinate flowers to produce fruits and nuts, which are dispersed by birds over wide areas to ensure germination. Coral reefs help to provide protection from storms. Coastal sands help to prevent floods on land by absorbing rainwater that trickles down into the coastal aquifer to provide an important source of freshwater.

The politics of planning

It is an unfortunate coincidence that Israel’s main ecological corridor runs along both sides of the Green Line, which separates Israel, as it was until the 1967 Six Day War, with the mainly Palestinian West Bank that Israel captured from Jordan during that war and which many Israelis are determined to keep.

Powerful forces within government and the settler community are striving to blur the Green Line through construction projects, which do not necessarily take environmental impacts into account. There are no spots for permanent environmental representatives on the Civil Administration’s planning boards — the SPNI, for example, can send observers, but cannot vote — and vital information about flora and fauna has not been collected. The Civil Administration, Israel’s governing body in the West Bank, is not subject to the planning and building laws that apply inside the Green Line.

In addition to Harish, the SPNI, an apolitical body, is fighting two plans for construction in this eastern corridor, both of them being advanced by the Civil Administration.

One concerns plans for a new industrial zone east of Rosh Ha’ayin and south of Kafr Qasim, adjacent to Route 5, which the SPNI warns constitutes the “biggest threat in the entire central region” because of the harm that it will cause to the ecological corridor. The organization is calling for alternative sites to be considered, including some under the jurisdiction of the Samaria Regional Council in the West Bank.

Land near Beitar Illit southwest of Jerusalem that forms part of an ecological corridor but is earmarked for development. (Dov Greenblat, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel).

Another is a plan for what is being called the “English Forest,” a 632-dunam (156-acre) site adjacent to the Haredi city of Beitar Illit, just inside the West Bank, southwest of Jerusalem. Close to the Beitar and Mevo Beitar checkpoint, this site is set to include industrial and crafts workshops, a cemetery, public buildings, sheltered housing and a transport hub.

The West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit, with the Palestinian village of Wadi Fukin in the valley below, June 17, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The SPNI says it will cause a death blow to the Judean Hills section of the corridor, already impacted by construction to date in Beitar Illit and next door Tzur Hadassah. It also warns of the negative effects construction will have on local springs used by area Palestinians for traditional agriculture in villages such as Wadi Fukin. Why, it asks, has no hydrogeological survey been done as a condition for advancing the plans?

The Supreme Planning Council of the Civil Administration said in a statement that it includes representatives from the INPA and the Ministry of Environmental Protection and that all relevant committees are open to the general public, including representatives of environmental bodies.

An ecologist was involved in planning the new industrial zone east of Rosh Ha’ayin, it said, and following an environmental survey, a decision was taken to create “a number of narrow corridors in place of the long corridor,” and to “prevent dense construction” that would “completely block” it. The statement added that minutes of the planning subcommittee’s discussions on objections to the Beitar Illit plan had not yet been published.

A fourth corridor — this time in the west of Israel, on the coastal plain, is the subject of a plan to build a new road between Routes 2 and 4. The options on the table, says the SPNI, will cause “serious” harm to an area between the Alexander Stream and the Sharon National Park south of Hadera and endanger natural water supplies.

Peace Valley near Yokne’am in northern Israel. (Headquarters, the Protest to Save Peace Valley)

And a fifth relates to the so-called Peace Valley, east of Yokne’am, in the north, on which Yokneam’s veteran mayor wishes to build, despite an agreement between various authorities in 2006 that this very site would be out of bounds for construction. In spring, this area — part of a declared UNESCO biosphere — is carpeted with rare as well as common species of herbaceous flowering plants, and is home to mammals such as mountain gazelles and hares and many species of predatory bird. Indeed, its ecosystem is so rich that it is now used by 250 breeding pairs of the formerly endangered lesser kestrel.

Around a million hikers reportedly visit the valley every year, and some 50,000 disabled people frequent a rehabilitation farm in the valley’s heart. Last year, 50,000 local residents signed a petition to preserve this beautiful area, which the SPNI says is the last area of extensive open space between Nahariya in the north and Ashdod in the south. The organization has identified alternative areas where it says construction would be far less damaging.

Everything now depends on a ruling by the interior minister on Yokne’am’s request for a boundary change that would see the valley transferred to it from the Megiddo Regional Council.  A boundaries commission has approved the transfer, but opposition — including from Megiddo — has been vociferous.

Marine and coastal protection

In the coming years, the SPNI will be continuing a campaign to protect a site in Israel’s economic waters, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of Israel’s Mediterranean coast, called the Palmachim Disturbance.

Unusual corals like this one have been discovered in the deep sea area of the Palmachim Disturbance 30 kilometers off the Tel Aviv coast. (Adam Weissman, Yitzhak Makovsky, Danny Chernov, Haifa University Department of Marine Biology.)

Discovered during the past decade, it features rare habitats of the deep sea that are home to life forms such as corals, squid and sharks, and underwater methane seeps. Attempts via the High Court to get the Energy Ministry to cancel a permit for the Energean Company to explore for gas and oil in the area have failed so far.

Another priority will be to lobby, together with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, to try to save 4,000 dunams (just under 1,000 acres) of sand dunes on which the Municipality of Ashdod in southern Israel wants to build nearly 8,100 residential units.

Some 70% of Israel’s coastal sands have disappeared and 40% of the remaining ones are in danger of development, the SPNI says. Constituting the northern extreme of the Sahara desert, these sands are home to four in ten of the country’s endemic plant species (only found in Israel) as well as three endemic rodents.

An area of dunes in Ashdod, southern Israel, earmarked for construction. (Dov Greenblat, Society for the Protection of Nature)

The third coastal project to which all of the country’s environmental bodies are  united in massive opposition is an agreement between the secretive government-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company and a joint Israeli-United Arab Emirates consortium to channel Gulf Oil to Europe by using Israel as a landbridge. Originally established in the 1960s in partnership with the shah of Iran, the company, located within the Finance Ministry, has a poor record on oil leaks. It has two ports, one in the tourist city of Eilat, on the Red Sea coast, which is home to globally important corals.

Keeping the birds and airplanes apart

Joined recently by the Agriculture Ministry, the organization is also lobbying for Israel’s second international airport to be built at Nevatim in the southern desert, rather than at Ramat David in the Jezreel valley in the country’s north. Not only would building on Ramat David dry out natural water sources, which are important for birds, says the organization; it would bring bird populations, including birds of prey, into needless and dangerous contact with aircraft.

As the mountains surround Jerusalem

Finally, the SPNI will be continuing its efforts to preserve the green hills to the west of Jerusalem, which were saved once from massive development in 2007 but are under threat once again.

Reches Lavan, or White Ridge, west of Jerusalem. (Dov Greenblat, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)

In January, after a lengthy fight by area residents, an appeals committee approved controversial plans to build some 5,000 residential units at Reches Lavan (White Ridge), a popular, pastoral site of agricultural terraces and springs just west of Jerusalem. Opponents have said they will now turn to the courts.

The SPNI is also fighting the Israel Lands Authority to save an area next to Hadassah Hospital, Ein Karem, above the Hindak spring, where plans are being discussed to earmark 664 dunams (164 acres) for 7,500 residential units and additional space to provide employment.

A ‘Sisyphean task’

Dror Boimel, the SPNI’s director of planning, said, “Conserving nature and open spaces in Israel is a difficult task and a relentless job. Everyone wants open space, wildlife and beautiful, natural places to visit, but every year, we have to manage and lead dozens of environmental struggles, from Mount Hermon in the north to Eilat in the south. Because of the density of the country and the growth rate of its population, nature conservation requires careful, efficient and high-quality planning which must be based on urban renewal, moves to public transportation and mass transit systems within the existing built environment, as far as is possible, and development of a sustainable energy system [solar energy], which cuts pollution but also preserves open space.

“Unfortunately, not everyone has internalized this and we are constantly encountering more and more plans for new neighborhoods and roads, on thousands of acres of land, as well as the granting of drilling licenses and other damaging initiatives.

“The work of nature conservation in Israel is Sisyphean and has to deal with countless initiatives like these, which threaten to destroy what little we have left.”

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