Open Zion

03.29.13

Protecting Nature, Ignoring International Law

Remember that whole “make the desert bloom” thing? Well, as it turns out, deserts aren’t actually intended to bloom.

Just like the rest of humanity, Israel has learned in recent decades that when people completely alter an ecosystem, it doesn’t work out for anyone, least of all the people. This is why after early Zionist pioneers drained the Hula Valley to great fanfare, the Israeli government eventually reflooded a large part of it, and why the Dead Sea, having been wildly over-industrialized, is now for all intents and purposes two seas, surrounded by a rapidly increasing number of dangerous sinkholes.

So first—the good news: Israel is taking an important environmental stand with regard to two different development areas, one in the Negev, the other in the center of the country. In the Negev, the issue concerns mineral mining:

The large area known as Hatzeva B is located close to a phosphate factory in the primordial landscape of the central Negev's Tzin Valley. Until a year ago, phosphate mining had left gashes up to dozens of meters deep here. Now, though, landscape rehabilitation work has returned to site to its original look.

…some 30,000 dunams (7,500 acres) were mined over the last four decades. According to [mining firm Rotem Amfert Negev], various bureaucratic tie-ups - for which the state is also responsible - have meant delays in full rehabilitation of the landscape, and some areas have not been restored at all.

However, in recent years Rotem Amfert has decided to rehabilitate the landscape during the actual mining, under the watchful eye of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Hatzeva B is one of its first sites.

… Rotem Amfert is not doing the rehabilitation purely out of a commitment to nature. It does so because it is a condition to receive new mining permits.

In the heart of the country, the discussion surrounds the construction of the new high-speed Tel Aviv-Jerusalem rail line, an important public transportation project for which Israelis have been clamoring for years:

… It is now six years since infrastructure work started on the first part of the fast rail track from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And though the area in question is only about 300 dunams (75 acres), it covers a strip seven kilometers long.

This case is not specifically about landscape rehabilitation, but rather efforts to encourage the regrowth of the amazing variety of natural vegetation in the area.

The strip has become a field laboratory for the restoration of natural flora, with Israel Railways being assisted by ecologists and agronomists, under the supervision of architect Aliza Kutner.

… "The infrastructure had to be built, but now it can be said that, thanks to the restoration of the natural vegetation, it can be used as a kind of ecological corridor for plants and animals," [ecologist Ron Frumkin] says, his words underscored by a number of golden jackals not far from where he was speaking.

And now—the bad news: For all that Israel is concerned about local vegetation and golden jackals, it’s not hesitating to build on land that belongs to someone else.

At two different points, the high-speed rail will cross the internationally recognized border between Israel and the West Bank (aka: the Green Line), in violation of international laws regarding the use of territory occupied in the course of war (and skirting Israel’s own laws and the legal interpretations of its own Supreme Court). The rail line also crosses through what is officially “No Man’s Land,” though I suspect Israel’s government cares even less about that.

Needless to say, no one really talks about any of this. Israel is just expanding its rail system—and protecting nature! But this is part and parcel of a larger, decades-long pattern of blurring the Green Line beyond recognition, creating facts on the ground (such as the Security Barrier that runs deep into the West Bank, and West Bank settlement neighborhoods included in the Municipality of Jerusalem) to hold onto as much of Greater Israel as humanly possible, all while distracting Israelis from the actual implication: an ever-shrinking possibility of ever establishing an independent Palestine, and the implications that has for Israel’s own future, not least the likely destruction of either the state’s democratic nature, or of its status as the Jewish homeland.

The protection now being afforded ecosystems in the Negev and the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem corridor is a very welcome development—and even so: Far too much of what Israel does comes back to its self-destructive refusal to end the occupation.