The Ungreening of Israel Holy Land Grab: Development

No protesters appeared on a recent cold, sunny day when Israeli bulldozers began wrecking about a dozen illegally erected barriers in a remote community in northern Israel.

The demolition site wasn’t some Jewish outpost in the West Bank or a cluster of Arab homes built on disputed land. Instead it was a slice of beachfront property along the shores of Lake Kinneret that locals had cordoned off and unilaterally appropriated over the past few years, turning public land into pay-for-admission beaches and private lakeside enclaves.

After a protracted court battle pitting wealthy Israelis and local municipalities against the country’s Interior Ministry, the national government won the right to take back the illegally seized land, which was finally returned to the public in the subdued bulldozing operation in December.

It was one small victory for public access in an intense and growing battle for Israel’s open spaces.

The loss of that precious resource, many experts say, is Israel’s No. 1 environmental challenge — an especially relevant topic during Tu B’Shevat, which this year begins sundown on Feb. 2 and is synonymous with the promise of natural renewal.

In a country with few unblemished acres to spare, beaches are being privatized, fields are being turned into condo developments and the wooded hills around Jerusalem may turn into stone apartment complexes.

This virtually irreversible process is profoundly altering Israel’s landscape. Green earth is rapidly turning into concrete, and wildlife habitats and other environmentally sensitive areas are being destroyed. The quality-of-life consequences may be far-reaching.

“In Israel we have not yet understood that once you build, you lose the land forever,” said Eli Ben-Ari, a lawyer at Adam Teva V’Din, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense. “We’re as crowded in Israel as in some of the most congested areas of Bangladesh. But unlike Bangladesh, development is so fast here that our potential for destruction of open space is much greater.”

Unspoiled land in Israel is an endangered commodity for a simple reason: Demand is great and supply is drastically limited. Israel has Third World population growth rates and a First World pace of development in a country no bigger than New Jersey.

Zionism made the desert bloom for the benefit of a young nation. More than a half-century later, however, the ungreening of Israel is “the flip side of Zionism’s success,” said Alon Tal, professor of environmental policy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and one of Israel’s foremost environmental experts.

“Developers are working around the clock and have lots of resources,” Tal said. “There are no such things as victories in this business, only stays of execution.”

A recent report by the Israel Lands Authority showed that built-up areas in Israel had grown by 17 percent between 1948 and 2000. That rate is expected to double by 2020. Along with expected population growth, that wouldn’t leave much room between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea for the 15 million people expected to be living there by 2020.

In the West Bank, the problem is inextricably bound up with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as both sides compete to grab as much land as possible before a final settlement of the conflict. The Israeli army demolishes Palestinian fields for security purposes, such as the construction of the security fence, and expands its network of bypass roads in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Palestinian towns and cities continue to grow as quickly as they can, laying claim to areas that once were open fields used primarily for agriculture.

Across the Green Line, in Israel proper, municipalities jockey to increase their boundaries, moshavs add housing units, and rapidly developing towns and cities along the Mediterranean coast and north of Beersheba are rushing to build on the little open space that’s left.

Israel encompasses less than 14,000 square miles, excluding the West Bank, which is about 3,500 square miles. The country has 170 miles of coastline.

In 2005 there were 875 people per square mile in Israel, making it the 23rd most crowded country in the world. By contrast, the United States has 80 people per square mile and ranks 142nd.

But most of Israel’s population of around 7 million is concentrated in a relatively small area. Some 90 percent of Israelis live on less than 40 percent of the country’s land, much of it in the densely populated central part of the country, near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Nature reserves, national parks and forests cover about 28 percent of Israel. Another 27 percent is agricultural land. The remainder is a combination of urban areas, closed military zones and open spaces.

These open spaces are not protected areas, such as national parks, so there is little to shield them from the pressures of development.

It takes little more than a short drive along Israel’s heavily traveled highways to see evidence of swift development. The once-empty hills around Modi’in, a rapidly growing planned city halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, are filled now with row after row of limestone homes. The fields that used to abut the Tel Aviv suburb of Petach Tikva have been transformed into acre upon acre of apartment buildings.

Elsewhere in Israel, hills have been leveled or tunneled through, earth has been overturned, and empty areas have been paved in a frenzy of construction of new roads, bridges and rail routes.

One alternative to this nonstop land grab, conservationists say, is to build smarter both inside and outside urbanized areas. That would mean revitalizing Jerusalem’s downtown housing before expanding residential development into the Jerusalem forest, building roadside gas stations near cities rather than in rural areas and routing new roads near urban areas rather than through nature reserves — the subject of an ongoing battle in the Carmel area between Zichron Ya’acov and Haifa.

Part of the problem of coordinating land use, experts say, is that Israel, unlike developed countries with similar population densities, does not have a governmental body that is clearly responsible for planning and conservation related to open spaces. As a consequence, open areas in Israel quickly are being snapped up by developers.

In Holland, for example, a country slightly larger than Israel and with similar open-space challenges, “the lines are drawn — but we’re not there yet,” Tal said. “Here the open spaces wink and beckon developers.”

Hardly a season passes in which one Israeli politician or another is not accused of improperly authorizing construction projects for some wealthy developer — the prime minister included.

On the other hand, there have been some triumphs for groups opposed to open-space development. Two years ago, the Knesset enacted a law requiring any developer seeking a permit to build within 1,000 feet of a beach to appear before a special government panel for permission.

In November, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski announced that he was abandoning the controversial Safdie Plan, which would have replaced 6,000 acres of hilly forest land around Jerusalem and near the suburb of Mevasseret Zion with 20,000 new housing units. The plan would have permanently transformed a landscape many say is among Israel’s most pristine and valuable.

Still, there remains a constant fear among conservationists and the many Israelis who oppose various development projects from Eilat in the South to Metullah in the North that any victories against development forces are merely temporary.

“The Safdie Plan will return; there’s a lot of money to be made and somebody will try to revive it,” warned Tal, who lives in Modi’in, about five miles north of Mevasseret Zion. “The critical question there is whether Modi’in will be a 250,000-person concrete jungle or a city near some parks and heritage sites.”

The same could be said of Israel as a whole.

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