previous chapter
Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949
next chapter


3. Palestine's Environment,

Prelude to Disaster
or Benign Half-Century?

There may be no landscape in Israel that inspires as much national pride as that of the Jezreel Valley. This vast triangular patchwork of field crops and orchards is encircled by rounded hills with names like Tabor and Gilboa that evoke a majestic biblical past. The fertile soil is dark and heavy, rich in organic matter,[1] yielding a cornucopia of produce that celebrates a successful partnership between humans and this goodly land. Natan Alterman's lullaby from the 1930s remains a popular standard even today:

The sea of grains sway. The song of the flocks rings out. This is my land and her fields. This is the Valley of Jezreel.

One can hardly think of scenery more quintessentially Israeli and precious to the national heritage.

Yet the Jezreel Valley at the start of the twentieth century was an un-developed swamp[2] described as “barren and boring, a miserable plain with-out a tree or river …, all in ruins.”[3] In 1905, Gertrude Bell, the American diplomat/traveler, described mud so deep that the mules fell and the don-keys almost vanished in it: “‘Lord,’ said the mule driver, ‘One cannot even see the mules' ears.’”[4] It was not until 1924 that the Zionist settlers com-pleted the arduous two-year task of converting the wetlands to the arable farmland of today.[5]

To frame the history of the Jezreel Valley and the other results of pre-State Zionist activity in modern environmental terms is at best a highly subjective venture. The pioneering Jews sought to “redeem” their prom-ised land, and change it they did. By 1948, the 8 percent of Palestine's soil acquired by the Yishuv bore little resemblance to the lands when they were purchased. The transformation, however, did not necessarily leave the land less healthy.


After almost four hundred years of relative equilibrium under Ottoman rule, the first half of the twentieth century was a tumultuous pe-riod for the land of Israel.[6] The population increased more than fourfold, from roughly 400,000 people to 1.8 million (prior to the massive Arab mi-gration of 1948).[7] Violence was common. The Turkish defeat in World War I ushered in British colonial rule. Habitual Arab rioting and later Jewish armed resistance hastened an unceremonious British departure that in turn sparked Israel's sanguinary War of Independence. Twentieth-century technology also left its inevitable stamp with the introduction of factories, electricity, motor vehicles, telephone infrastructure, airports, and the culti-vation of hundreds of thousands of acres. Over three hundred new Jewish settlements sprang up during this time, providing the operational base for the new State of Israel.

What long-term effect did the vicissitudes of the first half of the twen-tieth century actually have on the land of Israel and its natural resources? A dispassionate analysis within an environmental history requires objec-tive criteria. Three factors—population, affluence and technology—are typically associated with deterioration in environmental quality.[8] These factors will drive the discussion about the environmental consequences of Zionism and parallel activities in pre-State Palestine. Their derivation also requires a cursory understanding of the economy that blossomed during these years.

Judged by objective criteria, the impact of these ecologically turbulent years was limited in scope and not necessarily negative. Yet the an-tecedents of Israel's modern environmental problems can often be found in the initiatives and achievements of this remarkable period.


The early Zionist settlers spoke of their enterprise as a “return to Zion.” But to what sort of land did the Zionist settlers “return”? No matter how the borders are cut in Israel (or Palestine, the fourth-century Roman name for their province), it has always been small, never much larger than twenty thousand square kilometers. (This is one-fiftieth the size of Egypt, one-thirteenth of New Zealand, or roughly the size of New Jersey.) Yet as the first British High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel, wrote, “While only the size of a small province, the land has the variety of a continent.” Over 2600 species of plant life are indigenous to Israel, with hundreds of bird, reptile, and mammal species.[9] The ancients recognized only two seasons:

rainy and dry. During the seven months when rain does fall, the northern hills and mountains are blessed by as much as 800 millimeters of precipi-tation. The southern desert receives no more than 30 millimeters.

Biblical and talmudic citations suggest that most of the land in Israel was forested in ancient days, with some twenty species of trees.[10] For in-stance, the southern Galilee was known as the “woods of nations,” and Absalom's ill-fated encounter with trees occurred in the “Ephraim forest of Gilead.” Josephus, the Jewish Roman historian, wrote of the general plethora of horticulture in the first century B.C.: “For this land is a bloom-ing garden, and in it grow a great quantity of precious and extremely beautiful fruit trees of all kinds.”

The land of Israel did not benefit appreciably from its relatively low population density during the following millennia. As was the case in many other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries, the years of human abuse, predatory military campaigns, and overgrazing from the Roman conquest onward were manifested in soil erosion and deforesta-tion. Similarly, some two millennia earler, the Habur plains of northern Mesopotamia had deteriorated to desert, and its rich local ecosystem dis-appeared.[11] In his 1997 bestseller, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond describes the mechanics of this environmental degradation:

With the tree and grass cover removed, erosion proceeded and valleys silted up, while irrigation agriculture in the low-rainfall environment led to salt accumulation. … Thus, Fertile Crescent and eastern Mediterranean societies had the misfortune to arise in an ecologically fragile environment. They committed ecological suicide by destroying their own resource base.[12]

Palestine was part of this Levantine phenomenon.

The question of how barren the land of Israel was prior to Zionist set-tlement has become highly politicized in the “tit-for-tat” debates between pro-Israeli and pro-Arab camps. Environmentalists now question the ap-propriateness of such loaded terms as “barren” and “desolate,” given the remarkable underlying biodiversity. Indeed, this critique lies behind the historic tension between the foresters of the Jewish National Fund and Israeli conservation activists.

Undoubtedly the Zionist movement's perception of a sparsely popu-lated “Holy Land” at the turn of the century was not without justification. The countryside was not crowded. It was not empty, either. The first cen-sus taken by the Ottomans in 1882 revealed a collection of small villages, with Jerusalem's population reaching 30,000, Haifa's 6000, Jaffa's 10,000,

Hebron's 10,000, and Safed's 7500.[13] The most precise estimates suggest that by 1900 there were 350,000 predominantly Muslim inhabitants set-tled in the land, and some 20,000 nomadic Bedouin.[14]

Arab historians and representatives generally present a far more posi-tive description of the land prior to the twentieth century.[15] These writers justifiably resent the tendency of ninteenth-century chroniclers to carica-turize the native population as ignorant, fanatical, violent, or lazy, or, even worse, to ignore them completely.[16] Travel reports greatly influenced the perspective of the European Zionist visionaries. Their apprehension of Palestinian geography culminated in Yisrael Zangvil's 1894 slogan “a land without a people, for a people without a land.” This view was at the core of the hostility felt by native Arabs, who did not regard themselves as nonen-tities and who saw the Zionist settlers as Jewish “colonialists.”

Arab scholars, however, fail to offer a substantive basis for dismissing the preponderance of geographical descriptions chronicled by pilgrims and travelers[17] and the jejune desolation revealed in early aerial photographs. Israeli experts estimate that a mere one hundred square kilometers of nat-ural woodlands still survived in Palestine by the turn of the century,[18] in-creasingly segmented into small, isolated groves.[19] Winter heating needs and the local glass trade's steady demand for charcoal quickly led to the fur-ther decimation of the remaining forests between Hebron and Tekoah.[20] Grazing by goats was particularly pernicious, because it stymied regenera-tion.[21] By the time the Turkish army retreated in World War I, the soldiers' relentless search for firewood and ties for a railroad to the front erased all sign of the trees that had covered the coastal Sharon region.[22]

No account of the land's condition in the nineteenth century is likely to be quoted more often or is more entertaining than Mark Twain's irreverent 1867 travelogue-turned-bestseller—The Innocents Abroad. While prone to exaggeration, the narrative betrays his disappointment at the neglected condition of the Holy Land: “If all the poetry and nonsense that has been discharged upon the fountains and the bland scenery of this region were collected in a book, it would make a most valuable volume to burn.”[23]

Much of the Middle East is arid or semiarid, so forests should have looked different from those to which Western travelers were accustomed. In the absence of summer rains, trees are shorter and distribution is natu-rally not as dense, making the term “forest” in the local context something of a misnomer. “Woods” may be a more appropriate noun; indeed, the original 1920 British conservation legislation was entitled the Woods and Forest Ordinance.[24] The “cedars of Lebanon” and the “oaks of the Bashan” probably never covered a lush countryside as the biblical narrative might

suggest.[25] But a diverse Mediterranean flora flourished, even if trees rarely exceeded a height of three or four meters. Human activity was responsible for the disappearance of most of this vegetation.

A variety of rationalizations are put forward for what is probably a text-book case of the unregulated “commons” abuse. Explanations include the abject poverty and lack of alternative fuel sources, the impotence of the in-digenous “feudal” fellaheen (small farmers and farm workers) to undertake conservation initiatives, Ottoman taxes on trees (which actually led to episodes where healthy groves were uprooted to avoid the levies), and overgrazing.[26] After the excesses of World War I, it was always easy to blame the Turks. (For instance, one-third of Palestine's estimated 300,000 dunams—75,000 acres—of productive olive groves were devoured by the Ottoman military machine.[27]) In any event, the Turkish Forest Law, pur-ported plans by the sultan to bring French forestry expertise to the Ottoman Empire during the 1860s, and specific afforestation plans around Jerusalem did not amount to much.[28]

Poor stewardship was not limited to forestry and soil. During the Ottoman rule, hunting was completely unregulated. When German reli-gious settlers came to Ottoman Palestine in 1868, they brought modern European firearms with them. It did not take long for these high-precision weapons to become accessible to the native Arab population, in particular the Bedouin. World War I also greatly increased the availability of rifles. The consequences were swift in coming. Many animals were hunted to extinc-tion, among them the Syrian bear, the fallow deer, and the crocodile.[29] The ostrich, the cheetah, and the wild ass would soon follow suit. In 1912 the first of the Jewish zoologists, Yisrael Aharoni, managed to buy a two-year-old roe deer from Bedouin friends for study and preservation. Ironically, it turned out to be the very last one to be born in the wilds of Palestine.[30]

By world standards of the period, Palestine of the nineteenth century was a depressed region. There were no intercity roads until 1869. That year, the sixteen-hour horse ride from Jaffa to Jerusalem was shortened by improving the old pilgrim trail to honor Austro-Hungarian Kaiser Franz Joseph's visit. Three years later, a Jerusalem-Nablus road was added.[31] The famed train to Jerusalem (brokered by Yosef Navon, the grandfather of the future Israeli President Yitzhak Navon) became operational only in 1892.[32] Jerusalem installed the country's only municipal water system the previous year. It would take another sixty years for a proper sewage sys-tem to be built,[33] and for proper sewage treatment, another century. When Theodor Herzl visited Israel in 1898, his diary recorded the lack of trees and the pervasive stench of human wastes in Jerusalem.[34]


While greater prosperity and substantial population growth characterized the final days of Ottoman rule, it was quickly offset by the heavy burdens im-posed by World War I. The Jewish population alone dropped from 85,000 in 1914 to 65,000 by 1918.[35] Hence, the British acquired a land with only 700,000 inhabitants, practically no automobiles,[36] and no industrial activity to speak of.

This was not for lack of trying. Baron de Rothschild, the wealthy French-Jewish patron of the incipient Jewish settlements, valiantly sup-ported economic diversification, investing in several industrial ventures. Although a few initiatives, such as his Rishon L'Tzion wineries, were suc-cessful, a silk-thread spinnery at Rosh Pina and perfume plant in Yesod Hamaalah failed. A factory in Tantura, on the Mediterranean coast to the south of Haifa, was established in 1893 to supply glass to the nascent wineries. It, too, soon closed down, presumably due to technological defi-ciencies rather than to the competency of its manager Meir Dizengoff, who later became the first mayor of Tel Aviv.[37] The Baron's efforts paral-leled previous efforts by Moses Montefiore, the British philanthropist, who had set up weaving and sewing workshops that quickly floundered.

In 1890, 70 percent of the people in Palestine remained engaged in primitive subsistence agriculture. Even in the Jewish sector, technology was antiquated. For example, in 1900 sixteen of twenty orange groves in the vicinity of Petah Tikva were irrigated by animals pulling waterwheels rather than by then state-of-the-art steam-powered pumps.[38]

But a letter of November 2, 1917, from Arthur James Balfour, the British Secretary for Foreign Affairs, to Lord Rothschild would change all that. The Secretary explained that “His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” pledging “its best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this goal.” The 117-word Balfour Declaration gave the Zionist movement the ticket it needed to ride and changed the course of history.

The British Mandate

It is almost impossible not to divide a systematic environmental analysis into three spheres. Arab, Jews, and the British colonial rulers ostensibly lived together during the Mandate, but in fact were fully sequestered in their separate worlds, meeting only superficially. Speaking three distinct languages, living in three different cultural milieus, and developing three separate economies, in the best of times they had an uneasy coexistence.[39]

Jews remember the British Mandatory government primarily for reneg-ing on the Balfour Declaration's commitment to Jewish national aspirations

and for its brutal actions to limit Jewish immigration during the Holo-caust. Arabs have their own bitter memories about a mendacious policy of “equal obligation,” behind which they saw a consistently pro-Jewish bias. But if the land of Israel itself could speak, it would surely recall the twen-tieth century infrastructure introduced by the British.

The Ottomans had left behind a tiny network of poorly maintained roads, irregular mail service, a few train lines, telegraph wires, and a small port in Jaffa. This was the condition of the country at the beginning of the British Mandate. In contrast, the airports, military bases, telephone serv-ice, modern port, and oil refineries in Haifa and the extensive highway net-work that the State of Israel inherited thirty years later provided the core of the country's infrastructure for years thereafter. The remarkable eco-nomic growth that enabled a tenfold increase in the Jewish population and the doubling of the Arab sector during the Mandate was made possible by the groundwork laid by the colonial government.

Historian A. Joshua Sherman describes this postwar effort:

Often frustrated in their civil tasks, British officers were able to mobilize their energies in the non-political work of relief and rehabilitation: units of the Royal Engineers built roads, dug drainage systems and wells, worked to restore the shattered railways and brought in medical supplies and foodstuffs, largely from Egypt for the population. Officers restored the Palestine economy by establishing a Palestine currency pegged to the Egyptian system and helping the local farmers to cultivate their neglected fields.[40]

The motives behind British investment were not entirely magnanimous. Mandate policy was based on self-interest, with the stated goals of avoiding any burden on British taxpayers, promoting British exports, helping British firms expand, and supporting a capitalistic, local economy.[41] Despite the considerable disruption caused by the anti-Zionist Arab riots of the 1920s and the full-fledged revolt during 1936–1939, the British military managed to maintain a relatively stable business climate and thus achieve these ends. The GNP quickly swelled as the rudiments of a modern industrial econ-omy, replete with polluting emissions and effluents, took hold.

The Mandatory government showed surprisingly little favoritism to-ward English interests in awarding concessions to develop Palestine's lim-ited natural resources. Despite the objections of Conservative English politicians, Pinhas Rutenberg, a Ukrainian Jew, was granted rights to build a Palestinian electrical system (outside of Jerusalem).[42] No ordinary Ukrainian Jew, Rutenberg had served in the unlikely position of police chief for Alexander Kerensky during the brief provisional government in

Russia that separated the overthrow of the Czar from the Bolshevik takeover. Rutenberg liked to intimate that had he been given the green light to carry out a few surgical assassinations, the entire Bolshevik revo-lution could have been prevented.[43]

Having become a persona non grata in Soviet Russia, Rutenberg turned his formidable energies to Zionism.[44] In Israel Rutenberg will always be primarily associated with electricity. After raising a quarter of the one mil-lion Palestinian pounds necessary for the project, he commenced work on the first electrical station at Naharayim (or “two rivers”), which was lo-cated on the Yarmuk and the Jordan Rivers. The design selected required a total revision in the natural hydrology of the area. Four years after work began, the station began to generate power. Physically the plant sat in an artificial lake, fed by a diverted Jordan River that was rechanneled east-ward into the Yarmuk River.

Rutenberg built additional facilities in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Tiberias, so that by the 1930s electricity was no longer the limiting factor for the new cities' industries and irrigation projects. As the former two facilities ex-panded, they posed increasingly severe public health hazards, eventually galvanizing activists and spurring environmental campaigns and litigation in Haifa and Tel Aviv.

In addition to producing electricity, the British expanded the Ottoman train system. This was complicated by the fact that the Turks had used a narrow-gauge track system, whereas the British relied on standard gauge. Following World War I, some of the Turkish tracks were converted, and several hundred kilometers of new lines were laid. To provide a reliable supply line to the front, this network was expanded during World War II deep into Lebanon, with through trains to Egypt.[45] It was the British roads (built, of course, by both Arabs and Jews) that really affected the local landscape. By the time the Mandate departed, two-lane highways criss-crossed the land, linking the Galilee, the Negev, and the agricultural val-leys to the center of the country, even though Arab ambushes frequently made them unsafe.

The British also bequeathed to the new State a comprehensive legal in-frastructure. Despite a tenfold increase in population, Israel still clings to the Mandate's three-tiered court system and many of its laws.[46] Notwithstanding an avowed policy to avoid disturbing local life and cus-tom, many of the Turkish laws and norms were changed during the course of the Mandate. The Government promulgated important ordinances, and British common-law precedent guided the courts. Some changes had im-portant environmental implications. While Parliament had not yet enacted

“modern environmental statutes” in England, traditional limitations on public and private nuisances were brought to Palestine through principles of British tort law that were later distilled into the Civil Wrong Ordinance of 1944.[47] Indeed, seven brief provisions of the Ordinance, summarizing British nuisance law, were the basis for most environmental litigation in Israel until the 1990s.

The reliance on private and civil law to control nuisances and hazards was a reflection of British philosophy of the day concerning the environ-ment. The British perceived pollution to be essentially a local problem, best addressed by municipal authorities or dissatisfied neighbors. The Municipal Corporations Ordinance of 1936 required each town to appoint a municipal sanitary engineer or sanitary inspector to oversee such key is-sues as the quality of drinking water, construction of sewage systems, and prevention of sanitation hazards.[48] The Public Health Ordinance of 1940[49] contained many far-reaching provisions for the setting of centralized stan-dards in areas such as drinking water and nuisances. These laws provided the groundwork for basic sanitation in the Jewish cities. They did little, however, to create a centralized authority that could both assist and regu-late the largely unequipped local personnel. Environmental enforcement was not yet a salient concept. Although the Penal Code of 1936[50] included prohibitions against intentionally polluting air and water, these offenses were not on the Mandate police's priority list.

In general, sanitation efforts by the Jerusalem government focused on preventing major epidemics such as plague and smallpox. Environment and sanitation received only secondary interest and resources. What did take place was almost entirely due to Yehudah “Louis” Kantor. Kantor was an American sanitary engineer who came to Palestine as part of a Hadassah delegation following World War I. He was immediately put to work by the military Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (OETA) authority to create a sewage system for Jerusalem. Impressed, the author-ity's leaders made him director of the government's Sanitation Department. He served in this capacity from 1920 until his death in 1933 at the age of 49.[51] Notwithstanding his dedication, most rural communi-ties during the Mandate had no indoor plumbing, and the majority of cities and villages relied on cesspools or septic tanks for waste disposal.[52]

Unlike sanitation, natural resources were considered a legitimate area of involvement for the central government. The Mandate promulgated or-dinances pertaining to fishing,[53] forestry,[54] and wild animals.[55] All these laws survive in amended forms, fifty years after the Mandate's cessation, with varying degrees of implementation.


Water, considered the scarcest resource of all in Palestine, was not ad-dressed in a comprehensive manner until 1940, when the Palestine Order of Council of 1922 was amended.[56] The High Commissioner was granted rights to surface waters, “holding them in trust” for all of Palestine. Implicitly, the “trust” canceled the private rights to streams that had been granted under the Ottoman Mejelle law. The Commissioner was also em-powered to enact ordinances stipulating the beneficial use of all water sources, including groundwater.

During the last ten years of the Mandate, water allocation became a sub-ject of major contention between the Yishuv and the Mandate government. By this stage, Zionists viewed all British regulatory efforts with suspicion, as part of an overall British strategy to stymie Jewish development.[57] Although a water commissioner was appointed under the 1944 edict, plans for redistributing water allocation in controlled areas were never carried out. Apparently the Jewish agricultural lobby was already a formidable po-litical force with which to be reckoned.[58]

As the legislative agenda suggests, the Mandate's hydrological concerns were limited primarily to issues surrounding allocation. Water quality was not something that warranted much attention.[59] By allowing municipal authorities to determine the location of their sewage outfall, towns were in effect encouraged to convert streams and wadis into carriers of waste.[60] For many cities and towns, this dynamic continued into the 1990s.

Ironically the Mandatory government's policies that exerted the great-est influence on the Palestine environment were those involving broader geopolitical considerations. A series of administrations could not seem to make up their minds between the Balfour Declaration's commitment to the Jews and the Mandatory Government's desire to appease the much larger Arab world. The resulting flip-flops in London's policy on settlement were quickly felt on the ground in Palestine. Quotas on Jewish immigration in white papers, as well as restrictions such as the 1940 Land Regulations, which limited Jewish land acquisition to 5 percent of Mandatory Palestine, were the valves that turned population growth and development on and off.

World War II shifted the economy of Palestine into overdrive. The British encouraged the Yishuv to mobilize for the war effort. By 1943, a full 63 percent of the total Jewish workforce was involved in occupations directly connected to defense needs.[61] Factories produced everything from boots and uniforms to machine and weapon parts.[62] The amount of cultivated land increased by 70 percent, and twelve hundred new Jewish factories for military-related products were up and running by 1945, an absolute increase of 60 percent over antebellum levels. This remarkable

expansion occurred despite the fact that 136,000 Jewish-Palestinian men and women enlisted in the National Service within five days after regis-tration opened at the War's outbreak.[63]


If pollution control and water quality were nonissues for the Palestine government, the British did bring modern ideas about land management and conservation to the Middle East. Soon after Allenby's armies assumed control of the country, a stringent ordinance was passed protecting wood-lands. The law banned a variety of activities in forests, including unper-mitted removal or cutting of timber, extraction of resin, removing stones or minerals, and starting a fire “without due caution.” Most important, grazing was banned, as well as any passage by domestic livestock without a permit.[64] Violations could bring fines or up to six months imprisonment. In 1924 the Mandate passed a Hunting Ordinance to protect the animals on these lands.[65]

Upon assuming the Mandate, the British conducted a survey of lands showing that 622,370 dunams could still be classified as indigenous forest—roughly 2 percent of the lands in Palestine.[66] Even this is a somewhat in-flated number. As much as 30 percent of the territory was defined in later surveys as closed vegetation—impenetrable thickets, accessible to goats but too dense and inhospitable for cattle-or sheep-grazing.[67] Another 50 percent of the lands had only sparse trees, and these rarely exceeded a few meters in height. But the British recognized that even these areas were quickly shrinking, because of the local Arab population's tendency to seek firewood or new lands for grazing and tillage.

The Forest Ordinance established a Department of Forestry, headed by a Forest Officer, in the Ministry of Agriculture. The designation of pro-tected forests limited logging and restricted other harmful activities (e.g., fires). The British Mandate government would eventually declare forty such areas, covering over 800,000 dunams.[68] Under the ordinance, eighteen types of trees were declared to be protected throughout the country and could be felled only with a permit from the Forest Officer. Although British motivation may not have been environmental, the policy preserved many scenic areas and enabled certain woodlands, such as those in the Carmel and Meron mountains, to rebound ecologically.[69] These served as the physical and cultural foundation upon which Israel's Nature Reserves Authority and the JNF (Jewish National Fund) Forestry Division could later build.[70]


The British rationale behind their forestry policy is summed up by Amihu Goor, a Yale and Oxford graduate and one of the few Palestinian Jews to reach the pinnacle of the Mandate's civil service, serving in the ca-pacity of Conservator of Forests for the Mandate:

In practice all local villagers are permitted to graze and cut, but not to cultivate, so that no new claims to ownership based on cultivation are allowed to arise. As a result, with the minimum of disturbance to the life of the villages, the rights of the state have been safeguarded and the state still has the chance of afforesting and developing these uncultivated lands at some future date when circumstances permit.[71]

Goor's summary does not mention the afforestation conducted by the Mandatory Government. Twenty million trees were planted on 53,500 dunams of reserve lands. The Government distributed eleven million more trees for local initiatives. Most of these were grown in a network of gov-ernment nurseries. Government efforts dwarfed the parallel afforestation efforts of the Jewish National Fund, involving 4.5 times more land and 6.5 times as many trees.[72] The principal goal of British forest policy, however, was to halt destruction of existing stock. A significant percentage of the trees planted died, primarily as a result of pest infestation.

Because they were designed to constrain them, not surprisingly, the re-serves were unpopular with the local Arab populations. Arson was a com-mon form of protest. Years later, during the Palestinian Intifada of the 1980s and 1990s, this phenomenon would destroy scores of trees.[73]

A fascinating and little-known aspect of British conservation involved the protection of wildflowers. Goor, as a senior official in the Forestry Department, in 1930 requested from the head of the Botany Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem a list of plants that might benefit government protection. Goor also explored the idea of adopting 1929 German wildflower protection regulations.[74] The Hebrew University re-sponded with a series of suggestions, including a blanket prohibition on vegetation in the Dead Sea region, protection of the Tabor oak tree, and a ban on picking various wildflowers that were already beginning to disap-pear. The recommendations were transformed into a 1931 regulation for-bidding the picking of flowers in forest reserves.

The British record in protecting local wildlife was far less impressive. The hunting law reflected a lack of familiarity with local species, particu-larly of those most requiring protection.[75] Once a hunting license was granted, there were practically no limitations on the types of animals that could be shot. Some of the rarest indigenous mammals disappeared during

the course of the Mandate. The ordinance allowed hunters to shoot two gazelles a year, but very quickly the number of licensed hunters exceeded the number of gazelles surviving in the Palestine wilds.[76] Hardy ibex, with their spiraled horns, were slaughtered when they gathered around the water holes in the evening after leaving the safety of their rocky desert perches. Over 30,000 gazelles were shot between 1918 and 1935 (often to be used in a soup popular among Arab residents). Even today after fifty years of stringent Israeli protection, these populations have not returned to their original levels.

The feeble implementation of conservation policy was not without crit-ics. A few Jewish academics stepped forward to fill what today would be called a watchdog function. Professor Heinrich Mendelssohn was one of them. When he was barely into his teens, Mendelssohn decided that he was interested in learning about natural history and animals. His parents would not hear of it—in Berlin, gifted Jewish children were expected to study medicine. As a compromise however, they allowed him to try a dou-ble major with zoology at Humboldt University. By then Mendelssohn was already an active Zionist. A copy of Leo Pinsker's classic Zionist trea-tise Autoemancipation had fallen into his hands at age twelve, changing his life forever. Only when he got into a fist fight with Nazi thugs in 1933 did his parents relent and give their blessings to his aliyah. In Israel he eventually assumed the role of scientific guru for the budding conserva-tion movement.

At the age of 90, Mendelssohn still maintains remarkable recall over events during the Mandate period. He argues that not only was the Hunting Ordinance inadequate—it was never enforced, despite the many Arab po-licemen hired to this end. In the 1930s, already enjoying the respect accorded academics, Mendelssohn received an audience with the responsible British authorities in the Ministry of Agriculture. There he complained about the widespread slaughter of the gazelle taking place in the reserves. The patent bureaucratic response was that police or inspectors at the reserves were re-sponsible for enforcement. The British attitude was: “‘Original inhabitants have the right to hunt whatever they please’—which meant, ‘Jew stand aside, don't interfere.’”[77]

On his honeymoon in 1945, taking his wife hiking in Nahal Amud be-tween Safed and the Sea of Galilee, Mendelssohn bumped into a group of Druze men from the village of Mrar who were out for a day of hunting. Not short on courage, the diminutive Mendelssohn scolded the armed Arabs for breaking the law. Mendelssohn recalls, “They knew very well they shouldn't be hunting and didn't take it too badly.” In fact the jovial

hunters must have been charmed by the chutzpah of the bespectacled pro-fessor. “Soon thereafter they made a special trip to come visit me in Tel Aviv so we could talk about nature.”[78]

Perhaps because Jewish dietary laws permit the slaughter of animals only when they are in captivity, hunting is alien to traditional Jewish cul-ture. Like the biblical matriarch Rebecca, who favored Jacob over Esau, Jewish sentiment generally sees hunters as brutish and barbaric. (Not sur-prisingly, Josephus reports that the non-Jewish King Herod was a rabid hunting enthusiast.) For the most part, the Zionist revolution did not try to reinvent this part of Jewish identity; hunting was predominantly an Arab pastime during the Mandate. There were more than a few exceptions though. Few know about a Jewish hunting club, based in Jerusalem, that convened periodically during the Mandate. The wealthy Jerusalemites would take a bus to the Huleh Valley, bringing along local Arabs who would venture into the swamps to fetch the birds that fell into the cold winter waters. These elitists, however, were perceived by the Yishuv as pa-thetic mimics of the Gentile aristocracy, and with the founding of the State, the club fell into obscurity.[79]


Generalizing about the indigenous Arab population of Palestine during this period is difficult, as it was truly a heterogeneous community. In 1880 Laurence Oliphant, the British diplomat-anthropologist, identified nine different ethnic and religious groups in the farm villages around Haifa alone.[80] As Arab immigration ballooned during the British Mandate, it only increased the diversity. Most of the Sunni Muslim majority worked as small farmers, or fellaheen. In contrast, 10 percent of the Arabic speak-ing community identified by the 1931 census was Christian, and of this group only one in seven worked in agriculture. A rapidly growing com-munity of some sixty thousand Bedouin kept a distance from the perma-nent population, who feared these unpredictable nomads (seeFigure 2). Arab villages were prudently sited on the crests of hills for reasons of self-defense.[81]

With the improvement in personal security during the twentieth cen-tury, Arab villages spread out across the rural lands of Palestine, particu-larly in the coastal region, where Jewish activity was most intense. The proportion of land they controlled did not grow, despite calls in the Arab press as early as 1913 to buy state-owned lands before they were snatched by the Zionists. As land prices rose, there was little effort—and ultimately,

insufficient funds—for the systematic expansion of Arab landholdings and agricultural activity.

In practice, the new century did little to change the traditional, sub-sistence farming practices of the locals. Arab entrepreneurs such as Beirut-based Ibrahim Sursuk, who for the early years of the century hired thousands of laborers and even dabbled in swamp draining to estab-lish a modern cotton industry, suffered heavy losses.[82] The Arab fellaheen were only marginally influenced by the new technologies introduced by the European Jewish settlers, such as the more sophisticated thresher, or the “Jewish plow,” which replaced the traditional single-nail plow by the end of the Ottoman period.[83] Retention of fellah farming methods probably had more to do with financial constraints and the absence of formal extension programs (despite the educational program of the Mandate, by World War II rural illiteracy among men was still 70 percent[84]) than with ideology.

Today Palestinian agricultural experts are quick to point out the envi-ronmental benefits of the old fellah techniques.[85] The 1930 report of the Simpson Commission about conditions in Palestine (which was very neg-ative toward Zionist aspirations) reflected similar admiration; it spared no praise in its description of the diligence of indigenous Arab farming.[86] The market was less sympathetic.

The technology gap led to economic disadvantage for the fellaheen, as agriculture shifted from subsistence farming to cash crops. While far below Egyptian (not to mention European) levels, Jewish yields for cereal crops such as wheat and barley were more than twice those of the Arab farmers.[87] In particular in the lucrative citrus branch, the Arabs' mule-driven pumps could not provide the necessary irrigation for the planta-tions that expanded along with the ever-growing citrus demand from Great Britain.

With the rural population in the Arab sector doubling between 1922 and 1944 (from 375,000 to 734,000) and the available lands shrinking in the face of Zionist acquisition, subdivision led to further subdivision.[88] Reforms in the Mandate tax policy were designed to ease the burden on fellaheen, ultimately reducing their contribution to 2 percent of national collection.[89] It was not enough, however; taxes continued to exacerbate the destitution of the debt-ridden peasants. Sentimental and even environ-mental benefits notwithstanding, the old fellah methods of farming could not compete.

For a brief period, an exception to this trend, owing to government in-tervention, was the raising of olive trees. To assist the beleaguered fellaheen after Turkish plundering, the British offered olive trees at subsidized

prices. Mandate officials believed that the effect of the policy would be beneficial to the land, because it necessitated terracing and other soil con-servation practices.[90] Some one hundred thousand new dunams within the Arab sector were planted during the late 1930s. The new olives were typ-ically bought by the soap manufacturers centered around Nablus. Previously, these presses and factories had imported olives from Syria as a raw material.[91] It takes eight years for olives to begin giving fruit and twenty years to reach full production levels. Eventually, however, supply exceeded demand, and the market became glutted. Actual revenues from olive production remained a distant third behind citrus and wheat, leaving the financial profile of the fellah unchanged.[92]

The 1920s and 1930s witnessed an exodus of fellaheen from the farm to jobs in British public-works projects, Jewish industrial and agricultural ventures, and limited new Arab enterprises.[93] Already at the turn of the century, one thousand Arabs worked for the handful of Jewish farmers in Zichron Yaakov. Typical Arab wages in the late 1930s in Palestine ranged from 150 to 600 mills (25 U.S. cents to one and a half U.S. dollars) a day. While this may seem exploitive, it was more than double the going rate in Syria and three times the wages in Iraq.[94] In fact, the high salaries made Palestine a magnet for workers from the entire Arab world, much like Kuwait in the 1960s and 1970s. By 1935 large shantytowns sprung up out-side Haifa and Jaffa, the cities experiencing the most dramatic growth dur-ing this time. Relative to other parts of the region, residents enjoyed better health care and a higher quality of life. For instance, the infant mortality rate among Palestinian Arabs dropped by almost 100 percent between 1927 and 1940.[95]

The spectacular growth in the Arab population during the Mandate, therefore, was not reflected in an expansion and diversification in the Arab industrial base or even a proportionate rise in Arab agricultural productiv-ity. The soap produced from the local olive oil in Nablus, the cotton woven in Gaza, and the glass produced in the workshops of Hebron remained the best-known of the commodities manufactured in Arab cities.[96] Manufacturing was typically carried out in small workshops rather than large industrial plants. An interesting inventory of Arab industrial activ-ity in the Mandate can be found in the records of the Abandoned Property Commission, which appropriated the workshops and plants left behind by the fleeing Palestinian Arab population. In the city of Lod, this included shops for producing buttons, ice, sausages, pasta, and soft drinks.[97] These processes were not without environmental side effects. Environmental au-thorities in the Galilee today, for instance, express concern about the organic

sludge produced from the small, traditional olive-oil production units in the Arab community. Their impact is modest, however.

Although 64 percent of Palestinian Arabs still lived off the land at the end of the Mandate,[98] they had become more dependent on the burgeoning Jewish sector. Some left the country after losing their jobs during the 1936–1939 revolts (or simply fled because of the wave of internal assassi-nations that left five hundred Arabs dead).[99] The British Royal Commission of 1936 (known as the Peel Commission), however, reported that the large importation of Jewish capital into Palestine in general had a “fructifying ef-fect” on the economic life of the entire country and the expansion of Arab industry and citriculture.[100] Yet it was not an empowering influence.

Although the Arab sector may not have been a major source of pollu-tion, some of their activities were ecologically problematic. Naturalists are justifiably critical of Palestinian Arabs and Bedouin both for overgrazing rangelands and for unrestrained hunting during the Ottoman and British regimes. (Ironically with the drop in numbers of livestock, and of their car-casses due to natural death, after the Arab exodus, local scavenging birds of prey were denied an estimated six thousand tons of food and suffered accordingly!)[101] It is difficult to find precise figures regarding sanitation and sewage services in the Arab sector, but clearly these also fell behind those of Jewish settlements at the time. Nevertheless, since Arabs lacked the capital for large industrial and agricultural initiatives, the overall envi-ronmental impact of their activities was minimal. When the dust settled after the 1948 war, the number of Arab residents in Israel had dropped to an astonishing 156,000. With a tiny population, modest technologies and a low standard of living, Arab communities contributed little to the over-all pollution burden inherited by the new State of Israel.


In 1878 Yoel Moshe Solomon, an eccentric, third-generation ultraortho-dox, Jerusalem Jew, took along two naïve Hungarian immigrants to buy swampland on the banks of the Yarkon River. Like other Jews of the period who began building homes outside the cramped quarters of the Old City, Solomon felt claustrophobic and sought a more natural existence.[102] The resulting farm village, Petah Tikva, was the first of a string of agricultural settlements associated with modern Zionism and the First Aliyah. The set-tlement was eventually abandoned by the original group, who threw up a white flag after being ravaged by malaria. When Baron Edmond de Rothschild contributed financial resources to the recently arrived farmers

of Israel Belkind's “Bilu” project (1882), it started an alliance that would launch a cultural and agricultural revolution. New Jewish settlers would return to Petah Tikva and stay.

With the departure of the oppressive Ottoman administration after World War I, the Jewish agricultural revolution took off. In the twenty years that followed, average three-year yields skyrocketed, from 11,000 to 205,000 tons.[103] Between the years 1926 and 1944, for example, potato production increased from 821 tons to 35,000 tons per year.[104] The para-mount importance of agriculture was not a subject of debate within the Yishuv. General, Labor, Revisionist, and Religious Zionists all shared an ideological fervor about transforming, or “redeeming,” the land of Israel for agricultural production. As it turned out, rapid agricultural expansion was an expedient and labor-intensive economic strategy for the Yishuv. Its real significance, however, was geopolitical, solidifying Jewish control over large tracts of land.

Citrus production led the way. Nimbly responding to England's un-quenchable demand for Jaffa oranges, Jews invested seventy million dol-lars in groves, expanding production sevenfold between 1918 and 1938.[105] Although citrus trees only occupied 4 percent of Palestine's eight million hectares of cultivated lands, the total value of production (3.6 million pounds sterling) exceeded the value of all other agricultural products,[106] generating 80 percent of Palestine's export revenues.[107] The increase was largely due to synthetic fertilizers. The profitability of citrus justified the high costs of imported fertilizers, whose use jumped from 1077 tons in 1922 to a peak of 14,698 in 1937, before settling at around 10,000 tons dur-ing World War II.[108] Eventually fertilizers would become the primary source of the nitrate that pollutes the groundwater under the western coastal plain. Prior to Israel's independence, application rates were low, and contamination was unknown, with nitrate concentrations of 0 to 10 parts per million, or “background levels,” during the 1930s.[109]

With monies supplied primarily by the Jewish National Fund, land was systematically purchased on a regional basis and converted to agricultural uses. The popular slogan “A dunam here, a dunam there” produced one settlement campaign after another. After the successful “redemption” of the Jezreel Valley, the reclamation of the marshy lands of Emeq Hefer that linked Haifa and the Tel Aviv region became the top Zionist priority. A string of settlements in the Beit Shean Valley was next. The particularly inhospitable swamps of the Zvulon Valley, directly north of Haifa, were soon purchased during this period. It would take some time before area kibbutzim would overcome the ferocious mosquitoes there. In the 1940s it

was on to the Negev. Although British land decrees slowed progress, the official Palestine Statistical Abstract indicates the steady, almost geomet-ric, increase in Jewish agricultural activity.

Many of the settlements that emerged were set up in the paramilitary “stockade and tower” operations of the 1930s. Overnight, a kibbutz with a defensible wall around it would burst into existence. The system was de-signed to create quick demographic facts on lands purchased by the Jewish National Fund, preempting British evictions and Arab violence. There is little doubt that the remarkable expansion of agriculture in the Yishuv was possible only through these aggressive tactics.

The “stockade and tower” approach, though, was also inherently myopic and led to mistakes. The paradigm promoting the “creation of facts on the ground” would live on as a macho modus operandi for the State of Israel. Beyond many environmental disasters, this “just do it” and fait accompli ethos would lead to scores of misadventures, from the ill-fated 1982 Lebanon War to the prohibitively expensive production of the Lavi jet.

Ra'anan Weitz tried to introduce theories of regional planning, in par-ticular in the area of water resources, when as a young upstart he joined the Jewish Agency's planning department in the 1930s. (The Jewish Agency served as the de facto government of the Yishuv.) Weitz returned home to Palestine after formal training in Italy. He was more than just an-other junior staffer, being the son of a leading figure in the JNF. Weitz quickly came to sit on key committees, but just as quickly came to recog-nize that without a supportive government, integrated, or “sustainable,” development as it is known today, was impossible.[110] The political realities ensured that planning by exigency would prevail in the Yishuv.

By the 1930s, farming in Eretz Yisrael conformed to a Western mono-culture approach taught by JNF agronomists and the pioneering “hachsharot,” or preparatory farms, in Europe. The original farmers of the First Aliyah generation sought to learn from the fellaheen and imitated many of their techniques.[111] Aaron Aharonson, the premier agronomist in the Yishuv during the early years of the century, shared this inclination. Founder of Palestine's first agricultural research station, in Atlit, Aharonson was widely admired locally and abroad for discovering the bib-lical genotype of wheat and for leading the national effort to control lo-custs. (Aharonson also headed the legendary NILI spy ring, which worked during World War I on behalf of the British.) Notwithstanding a modest formal training, which did not go beyond high school, he received offers for professorial positions in several California universities. Fluent in Arabic and with many Arab friends, Aharonson was deeply committed to

understanding the scientific basis of the Arabs' traditional agricultural prac-tices in order to develop expanded applications with modern technologies.

After Aharonson's untimely death in a 1922 plane crash, the agricul-tural establishment of the Yishuv never shared his interest and admiration for indigenous fellah agriculture. With his departure, the foremost agri-cultural authority became Professor Yitzhak Volcani, a Lithuanian-born agronomist, who had founded the Zionist Executive's agricultural research station in Rehovoth in 1921.[112] Volcani was convinced that emulating the fellaheen was a sure formula for economic stagnation.[113] Rather, progress could be linked only to what he called the “mixed farm,” with intense ir-rigation, European plows (later tractors), and diverse produce.

The paramount agricultural challenge involved water. Between 1924 and 1938, Zionist colonizing agencies dug 548 wells and almost as many canal systems to tap springs and streams.[114] The Yishuv did not have experienced water engineers and operated largely in a vacuum, with little assistance from the Mandate. Slowly proficiency improved.[115] The functional “hy-droautonomy” within the Yishuv needed to be coordinated. The result was the establishment of the Mekorot Company in 1937 by a consortium of the four leading Yishuv development institutions: Keren ha-Yesod, the JNF, the Palestine Land Development Corporation, and the Nir Corporation.[116] Mekorot was charged with planning, operating, and administering the companies that supplied water for irrigation and household needs. Today Mekorot maintains its status as the national water utility.

Tapping available water resources and utilizing all the arable land for farming changed the landscape dramatically. No single ecological system felt these changes more than the wetlands of Palestine. At the start of the twentieth century, some 180,000 dunams were categorized as swamps and marshes. For millennia they had been part of the local landscape. Even the Romans had made unsuccessful efforts to drain them. With mosquitoes making the vicinity virtually uninhabitable, Arab effendi landowners were all too happy to unload the swamplands onto the eager Zionist Europeans who could offer cash up front.[117] As a result, little was left of the wetlands by midcentury. The draining of the Huleh swamp during the 1950s was just the final stage in a reclamation process that paralleled geometric agri-cultural expansion.

Criticism of agricultural practices during this time needs to be tempered by an awareness of the state of the art in the early science of soil conserva-tion as well as the economic conditions prevailing in Jewish settlements. The tenacity of Zionist farm communities is reflected by their finding time and energy for culture, infrastructure, and ideology, in addition to

soil conservation measures, while their communal farms tottered on the verge of starvation. During the first half of the century, the pioneers lived well below today's poverty lines.


From an environmental perspective, the Yishuv's intense agriculture changed the landscape. But was the change necessarily negative? From the perspective of conservation, the most outspoken champion of Zionist agri-cultural achievements was probably a Christian American—Walter Clay Lowdermilk. Arriving in the Middle East in 1938 as part of a United States Department of Agriculture fact-finding mission, Lowdermilk brought with him a remarkably advanced “ecological” perspective for the period. A world-renowned soil scientist, Lowdermilk was sent to assess what might be learned about conservation practices in ancient lands such as Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt. The picture he saw was bleak.

His impressions from Palestine, detailed in his widely read 236-page book, Palestine, Land of Promise, offer a radical contrast. Lowdermilk was as critical of erosive practices of local fellaheen as he was inspired by the stewardship of 550,000 Jews over 6 percent of Palestine's mandated lands.[118] His clearly documented record challenges ecological revisionist aspersions about pre-State Zionist farming:

Along with the records of decay in the Holy Land we found a thoroughgoing effort to restore the ancient fertility of the long-neglected soil. This effort is the most remarkable we have seen while studying land use in twenty-four countries. It is being made by Jewish settlers who fled to Palestine from the hatreds and persecutions of Europe. We were astonished to find about three hundred colonies defying great hardships and applying the principles of cooperation and soil conservation to the old Land of Israel. … Here in one corner of the vast Near East, thoroughgoing work is in progress to rebuild the fertility of land instead of condemning it by neglect to further destruction and decay.[119]

One can argue that Lowdermilk's account is a biased one. Indeed, he was so impressed by his fact-finding visit that in 1951 he agreed to return and give “a year of volunteer service to the young little nation.” This stretched on for many more years, and he went on to found the Faculty of Agricultural Engineering at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa.[120]

A less flattering view of the agriculture in the Yishuv is offered by Professor Said Assaf. He perceives traditional Palestinian farming as en-vironmentally superior, with its terracing; legume planting on shallow,

nitrogen-poor, hilly soils; and minimal irrigation. Indeed Assaf claims that the small proportion of cultivated lands in the West Bank under irrigation (still only 5 percent) remains a virtue. The region simply does not have the water resources to support the type of agriculture established by the European Zionists.[121]

Today there is considerable concern about agricultural pollution in Israel. Yet it is hard to draft a compelling ecological indictment of farmers during the pre-State period. Efforts were made to combat erosion,[122] syn-thetic pesticides were not utilized,[123] and fertilizers were limited to citrus orchards in a very limited area. Notwithstanding Zionist efforts, only a fraction of the replenishable water supply was utilized.[124] Reliance on ir-rigation in a semiarid region is hardly a compelling argument, given irri-gation's central role in growing much of the food required to feed the planet. Even in tropical areas like Florida, farmers are grateful for Israeli drip-irrigation technology that was born of this dependence.

Whether or not the intensive farming spawned by the Zionist enterprise was a desirable transformation for the land is a question that depends on one's philosophical and aesthetic point of view. Historically, however, there was nothing new about efforts to bring large, even mountainous areas under cultivation. According to one study, man-made terraces occupy a re-markable 56 percent of the mountains surrounding Jerusalem.[125] Finally, even today, Israel's environmental agencies and organizations tend to be extremely charitable toward the agricultural sector, despite the contribution of farms to groundwater contamination. This may be related to the very high percentage of former kibbutz members in leadership positions. Presumably they share a visceral identification with a bucolic landscape.

But even the most outspoken antiagricultural Green activists see farmers as a lesser evil than industrial polluters. The most-favored-sector status of the kibbutz and the moshav (semicollective farms) constrained the sprawl of many Israeli cities, forcing them to plan more efficiently. Farming has its own ecological problems, but it does not impose nearly the damage to wildlife habitats that cities do. Indeed, preserving the enormous percentage of Israeli land under cultivation from insatiable real-estate developers has become a top priority today for Israel's envi-ronmental movement.


Industrial development was a central part of the Zionist agenda. By 1931 the new census showed as many Jews employed in factories and small

workshops as in agriculture.[126] The influx of “capitalist” immigrants from Germany (and the estimated 63 million pounds sterling they brought with them) spurred economic expansion, in particular in metal trades, textiles, and chemicals. Between 1930 and 1937, the number of industrial firms in-creased from 6000 to 14,000, with a corresponding jump in the “indus-trial” work force, from 19,000 to 55,000. During this period electricity usage in the Yishuv increased sevenfold.[127] Four years into World War II, industrial production reached new highs, as output increased 75 percent.

As in the Arab sector, few Jewish manufacturing ventures at midcentury involved heavy industries. There were several notable exceptions, however, where more-polluting industrial activity took place. The environmental im-pacts of these factories became problematic after they expanded during the 1950s and 1960s. Most notable was the industrial infrastructure (Figure 3) that sprang up to meet the postwar construction and immigration housing needs.

In 1909, sixty wealthy families left the city of Jaffa to build homes on its northern sand dunes. Like the Jerusalem Jews who escaped from the old city thirty years earlier, they too were looking for a moral, pastoral life.[128] They gave their settlement Nahum Sokolow's freely translated Hebrew name for Herzl's novel Altneuland; twenty-five years later, Tel Aviv was the most populous city in the land.[129] Its Municipality's Technical Department reported that during the late 1920s building increased geo-metrically, from 13,000 square meters in 1927, to 29,000 in 1929, to 44,000 square meters in 1930.[130] In absolute terms, the housing needs of the Arab population were even greater during this period. The new factories that provided building materials employed 6 to 7 percent of the Jewish labor-ers in the country.[131] One was the dusty Nesher Cement plant, established in 1919 on the outskirts of Haifa. Nesher prospered so much that it even-tually established a monopoly on cement production in Israel. The partic-ulate emissions from its smokestacks would become sufficiently severe during the 1960s and 1970s to spark the first real grassroots movement for air quality in Haifa.

Many obstacles stymied heavy industry in the Yishuv. One threshold problem involved the availability of capital. Early in the century Herzl en-couraged Zalman Levontin to establish the Anglo-Israel Bank, which he did in 1903.[132] The lion's share of official Zionist investment, however, went into land acquisition and reclamation rather than manufacturing. Another problem was Article 18 of the Mandate, which stipulated that there should “be no discrimination in Palestine against goods originating in or destined for any of the countries which are members of the League

of Nations.” The inability to protect fragile startup ventures from interna-tional imports constituted a major drawback for entrepreneurs.

Although the Mandatory government offered no capital to subsidize early heavy industries, the “concessions” that they granted were often suf-ficient to spur private foreign investment. Private Jewish money invested in Palestine during the Mandate reached one hundred million pounds ster-ling, four times the level of “communal Jewish investment.”[133] The oil re-fineries in Haifa, the two potash plants along the Dead Sea, and, of course, electrical power stations, all enjoyed special arrangements with the Mandatory government. In retrospect, the tradition of government pa-tronage toward monopolistic industries proved to be an unfortunate part of the Mandate's environmental legacy. The extraterritorial, privileged status of these corporations engendered a dismissive attitude toward regulatory authority. For years after the establishment of Israel, this status hindered effective government control of industrial pollution.

Bureaucracy also slowed Zionist industrial progress. Moshe Novomeski arrived in Israel in 1920, eager to put his training in engineering and expe-rience in Siberian gold mining to work. The Dead Sea—the lowest place on earth (and at times one of the hottest)—is a far cry from Siberia, and yet ex-ploiting the mineral-rich lake quickly became an obsession for Novomeski. British enthusiasm for the endeavor was lukewarm. It took nine years of sustained efforts by Novomeski, including overcoming opposition in the British Parliament, to win a complicated tender. Only then was it possible to attract American Jewish investors and to commence mining.[134]

Within two years, the twin facilities of the Palestine Potash Company employed four hundred workers and exported thousands of tons of potash. By the end of the 1930s, annual sales would reach half a million Palestinian pounds.[135] The northern Kalia plant was destroyed during the War of Independence. The southern Sodom plant, however, survived to become a true industrial behemoth. Its present capacity of two million tons per year has had an enormous environmental impact.[136] The mining operations have obliterated any remnant of the natural landscape in the southern Dead Sea area. No less important, for many years the facility mined the bromine for one-third of the world's methyl bromide, a highly toxic pesticide re-sponsible for destroying one-tenth of the stratospheric ozone layer.[137]


There is no better example of Zionist intervention to improve the land than the successful war waged against malaria, and Israelis are proud of

it.[138] From a strictly environmental health perspective, the dramatic drop in the incidence of this disease was a remarkable achievement. Malaria had been part of the life in the Holy Land from time immemorial. Many bib-lical commentators believe that it was malaria that so intimidated Moses' spies, who fearfully described “a land that devours its inhabitants.”[139]

Malaria is caused by protozoan parasites of the genus Plasmodium that are carried by female anopheline mosquitoes. (Male mosquitoes feed only on plant juices and consequently do not transmit the disease.)[140] The par-asites develop in the gut of the mosquito and are passed on in its saliva when it takes a new blood meal. The parasites are then carried by the vic-tim's blood to the liver, where they invade the cells and multiply. It takes approximately two weeks for the parasite to return to the blood and pen-etrate the red cells, producing the well-known symptoms of fever, shiver-ing, pain in the joints, and headache, as the red cells are broken down. Long-term damage to vital organs, as in cerebral malaria, where infected red cells obstruct the blood vessels in the brain, can cause death.[141]

Morbidity and mortality data are available primarily from the Jewish sector in Palestine, where the initial research and prevention efforts took place. The data reflect a scourge of staggering proportions. The first pub-lished surveys in 1912 showed that some 40 to 80 percent of Jerusalem schoolchildren had malarial symptoms. It was simply assumed that malaria was part of the Palestine experience—almost an initiation rite. Mosquitoes were the real winners of World War I, with 40 percent of re-turning Turkish soldiers infected with malaria and 28,500 recorded cases among the British army. Few immigrants were spared during their first year. In 1920 there was a rate of 355 cases per 1000 people among Jewish residents of Palestine, causing a total of 526 fatalities.[142] Malaria was the number one public-health enemy, with a relative risk of death sixty times greater than that posed by traffic accidents in Israel today.

The first signs of progress in fighting malaria were made by Aaron Aharonson and Dr. Hillel Yaffe at Aharonson's Atlit agricultural research center. Their combined strategy involved draining breeding grounds, net-ting windows and spraying oils on surface waters to exterminate larvae. The measures reduced incidence from 380 cases between August and November of 1910 to 39 for the same period in 1911. This pilot interven-tion raised hopes that malaria need not be a fact of life in the Promised Land after all. The following year, Yaffe brought these techniques to Kibbutz Mishmar ha-Yarden and Yisod ha-Maaleh.[143]

Although the Mandatory government was technically responsible for the problem, Jewish initiative was behind the broad-based public health

activities. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, during his 1919 visit to Israel, posited that the Yishuv had no prospects for surviving and developing unless malaria were eradicated (Brandeis also made an anony-mous donation to support malaria research and control efforts, but the do-nation somehow enjoyed widespread publicity).[144]

The Hadassah Medical Organization was among the key scientific play-ers. Its founder, Henrietta Szold, published an illustrated brochure on the subject in 1921 that was much admired by professionals in the field. At that time the organization sponsored a pilot program in the agricultural settlements of Migdal, Kinneret, and Yavanael. The Hadassah scientists sampled the blood of every resident, distributed quinine as a preventative measure and systematically identified puddles and possible nesting grounds, for oil spraying (Figure 4). Here again, within a year, malaria rates dropped by 80 percent.[145] Not surprisingly, when the results became known, other Jewish communities demanded similar interventions.

It was then that the Joint Distribution Committee (an international Jewish philanthropy) proposed to the British authorities a national initia-tive to assist the Jewish and Arab sectors alike. The Joint, as it is still called, funded antimalarial measures, while the Mandate government of-fered official endorsement. Pragmatism rather than generosity may well have motivated the scope of the Jewish effort in Arab villages. For the first time the ecological realities of the country's small size sank in. Local ef-forts were not enough. Research revealed that the Anopheles enjoyed a range of up to 3.5 kilometers, but that the A. sacharvoi, common in the Huleh region, could fly 15 kilometers. This explained the seasonal out-break in Rosh Pina. By 1923 substantial antimalarial initiatives were up and running in fourteen regions of the country. In 1939 an English com-mission praised the Yishuv's antimalaria contribution to public health in the Arab sector. By 1946 the population had grown 200 percent since 1920, but the incidence of malaria had dropped to only twelve thousand reported cases.[146]

That was the year that DDT was introduced for control at an experi-mental level. It signaled the final stage in the battle against malaria. The pesticide's impact was precipitous. There were only 1172 cases reported in 1948. The general chaos that accompanied the 1948 War of Independence interrupted the meticulous drainage work that lay at the heart of much of the antimalarial success, but it was resumed with the creation of the State. With the expanded indoor and outdoor spraying of DDT, incidence dropped to eight to ten cases a year, enabling the Ministry of Health to close down its malaria department in 1962.


Some environmentalists point to the ecological price of the initiative: massive habitat destruction as well as reliance on a persistent and ecolog-ically insidious chemical. Public-health practitioners, as well as the fami-lies of the two million people around the world who even today are lost each year to the disease, would see it differently. In this dilemma of com-peting environmental values, it is not surprising that Zionists chose an an-thropocentric, people-first approach. In this way, Israel is no different from other Western and developing nations.


Because most of the industry that developed in the towns and cities of the Yishuv was light and involved only small tradesmen, the levels of pollu-tion generated were marginal by present standards. It is wrong, however, to assume that the Yishuv was so busy “creating a state” that it had no awareness at all about environmental issues. Urban environmental con-cerns certainly existed, but they fell into a generic “quality of life,” or nui-sance, category. In retrospect, this approach made sense, for pollution did not yet pose a serious risk to public health.

The mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, addressed the key environmen-tal problems of the city in his 1934 pamphlet, Tel Aviv and Its Life Styles. In this remarkably sanctimonious harangue, printed and widely distrib-uted by the municipal government, Dizengoff exhorted his city's residents to mend their antisocial behavior. The text is not expressed in the nomen-clature of today's environmental rhetoric, yet the mayor of Tel Aviv today, Ron Huldai (who has carefully groomed his own image as a Green mayor), would certainly feel comfortable with the message.

There are those who see Israel's litter problem as a recent phenomenon, caused by such factors as the introduction of plastic packaging, the paucity of trash cans (owing to security concerns), or even the arrival of non-European immigrants. But litter was just the first misdemeanor on the first Jewish city's environmental rap sheet:

The city has one hundred sixty workers who clean the streets. But even if we add more to them, will they be able to clean up a city with 100,000 people that pollute nonstop? In contrast, it would greatly influence cleanliness in the city if every resident understood that it is forbidden to litter the streets with fruit peels and paper, intended for the special waste bins and cans. It is prohibited to pour polluted water into public spaces, and it is prohibited to leave building materials on the sidewalks. … It's the obligation of every civilized person to keep himself and his environment clean.[147]


Dizengoff went on to denounce the chronic noise pollution, habitual smoking of cigarettes in public venues (despite signs forbidding it), and the lack of respect for trees and flowers in public parks, as well as chronic tar-diness and immodest dress by the younger generation. Presciently he also dedicates several paragraphs to the environmental hazards of transporta-tion. His claim, however, that Tel Aviv traffic is twelve and a half times greater than that in other international cities with a similar population does not reference any supporting data.[148]

It is interesting to note other environmental issues that might have been on a Tel Aviv mayor's agenda but were not. The wells of the city, for instance, had already begun to show signs of increasing salinity, as seawater rushed in to fill the vacuum caused by overpumping. Not long after the creation of the State they were closed, owing to high chlorine levels.[149] Similarly, the fine sand, or “zifzif,” on the beaches was rapidly disappearing, mined to supply concrete for the construction of the many new buildings. When legislation would finally be introduced banning the mining of beach sands, very little of the generous natural deposits was left. Natural-resource constraints, however, were not part of the Yishuv's environmental consciousness.

The urban environmental perspective received massive reinforce-ments during the course of the 1930s from the Fifth Aliyah. Dirt, dis-order, and a lack of general hygiene were a particular affront to the German-Jewish refugees, known locally as “Yekkes,” who fled Nazi anti-Semitism. It would take many years, however, for these values to resonate with the more senior members of the Yishuv, who mocked the newcomers' accents, promptness, orderliness, and passion for classical music. As with almost every immigrant group, it took years for the Yekkes to feel as if they belonged.

Shimon “Sigfried” Kanovich is a good representative of the environ-mental orientation of the Yekkes, of the fastest-growing community in Palestine during the 1930s. A pediatrician and psychologist of some renown, Kanovich moved to Israel from Berlin in 1933. There he got in-volved in Tel Aviv politics, helped found the Progressive Party, and even-tually served in the Knesset. But his outsider status prevented him from bringing sanitation and civility to his adopted city. He shared his alien-ation with his diary: “We were neither here nor there.”[150] Three decades later, in 1961, he was able to draft and push through the first air and noise pollution statute as a member of Israel's Knesset. For years it was dis-missed as a foolish parliamentary exercise and even spawned a pejorative expression: a “Kanovich Law” (a well-meaning, but unenforceable statute). Kanovich died five months after the legislation's passage, in the

heat of the 1962 Knesset campaign, but he would exert an influence beyond the grave. His Abatement of Nuisances Law eventually became the primary tool for implementing Israeli air and noise pollution abatement policies.

It was the urban environment that produced the few political figures in Israel who adopted environmentalism as a cause. The most famous, Josef Tamir, earned a reputation as an environmental maverick in the Knesset during the 1970s.[151] When asked what brought him to the issue, he recalls his early childhood memories of the forests and rushing rivers of the Ukraine. Then there were his many class trips around Palestine, such as a particularly memorable visit to the Dead Sea in 1925. Tamir, however, was a city dweller. During the 1940s he served as Director General of the Petah Tikva rural area local council. His efforts to maintain the town's rustic character brought the political nature of environmental issues home to him, forty years before anyone thought of Green parties.


For all intents and purposes, there were no focused environmental ac-tivism or formal Green organization in the Yishuv prior to or during the Mandate period. Nonetheless, numerous researchers and teachers in the area of biology, zoology, botany, and nature studies are generally recog-nized as the forebears of Israel's environmental movement.[152] For many years, their interaction was informal and unorganized. However, with the establishment of the professional journal Ha-Teva v'ha-Aretz (Nature and the Land) in 1931, communication between the natural scientists of the Yishuv improved. The agronomist Ariyeh Feldman founded and edited the journal. It offered an accessible forum for academics and teachers, as well as amateur nature lovers, to report findings on subjects related to nat-ural history. And today for those interested in nature, reading back issues from the 1930s is still fascinating. Despite the chaos and disruption of the period, for twenty-eight years, until his death, Feldman did not miss a sin-gle monthly issue.[153] Today the periodical lives on in a more glossy format as Land and Nature.

Even before publication of the journal, Alexander Eig's 1926 pamphlet Additions to the Knowledge of Plants in the Land of Israel contained a re-markably prophetic analysis about disappearing habitats and the threat to Palestinian biodiversity:

Already today, if one of the botanists from the past century rose from the grave, he would not recognize entire regions. Those interested in the nature of the Land and its fate must get organized into an association for

the purpose of preservation of nature. One of its primary tasks would be to keep a constant watch about all that concerns the plants of Israel.[154]

Eig would die an untimely death at the age of 44 but not before amass-ing an astonishing list of achievements, which included founding a Department of Botany and establishing the Botanical Gardens at the Hebrew University, and researching and writing numerous publications, including the first comprehensive taxonomic guide for names of plants in Palestine.[155] He did not live to implement his call for ecological activism, and it probably went unnoticed by most of his scientific colleagues. His writing, however, appears to have moved the Mandate forester Amihu Goor to initiate a wildflower protection program. Indeed, it was Eig who prepared the proposal of protected plants.

Similar calls to save the Palestinian landscape were heard in the 1930s in Hebrew architecture and planning journals.[156] These were lone voices with no organizational follow-through. Nonetheless, the network of re-searchers and teachers with a passion for nature and the outdoors contin-ued to grow. With the establishment of the Biological Pedagogical Institute in Tel Aviv in 1931, nature lovers in the Yishuv had a nerve center. Many consider its founder, Yehoshua Margolin, to be the greatest environmental educator of his day.

Prior to coming to Israel, Margolin had taught nature in Kiev. It took no time for him to take over the subject at Mikveh Yisrael, the oldest agri-cultural school in the Yishuv, located south of Tel Aviv. There “Uncle Yehoshua” was always leading his adoring students into the field. Some of the results can still be seen in an impressive taxidermal collection.[157] As luck would have it, a former pupil from Kiev, Shoshana Parsitz, oversaw education for the city of Tel Aviv. Parsitz had fond recollections of her fa-vorite class from school days, and when the old Central Synagogue with its 750 square meters of adjacent land moved to its present, more promi-nent location, she offered Margolin the old site on 12 Yehudah ha-Levi Street (today it is a parking lot). Moreover, she found funding for a budget: the then-astronomical sum of one hundred Palestinian pounds a year.[158]

Margolin had no trouble attracting top young academics such as Heinrich Mendelssohn and Alexander Barash to the Biological Pedagogical Institute. Beyond formal and informal teaching, the Institute sponsored a youth group called The Young Naturalists, who would hike throughout Israel, bringing back samples from their travels. National Societies of Botany and Zoology were established, with the Institute serving as their base. The former synagogue lot quickly became a small zoo, home to a variety

of species that had been collected by amateur enthusiasts. Until his death in 1947, Margolin taught hundreds of young people, and they be-came the new generation of nature teachers. Among them was Azariah Alon, who would eventually bring his encyclopedic knowledge of Israel's land, nature, and history to the new nation through a weekly radio show and many books. Although these incipient conservationists might today be categorized as “public-interest scientists,” most in fact were driven by the Zionist Romanticism of the period.


In general, there is a tendency to frame impressions about early Zionist environmental crimes and misdemeanors in the light of contemporary ecological knowledge. Even by such standards, however, environmental conditions in the land of Israel were in decidedly reasonable shape in 1949. After the industrial boom of World War II in particular, the newly founded Jewish state was much less agrarian than Palestine had been at the start of the century, but air pollution was still moderate enough that a modern nomenclature had not entered the vernacular. (Twelve years later, when Shimon Kanovich proposed his nuisance law, he would refer to it as “harmful smoke.”) The prevailing agricultural practices would be defined today as low-impact, if not organic, for pesticides and synthetic fertilizers were not heavily used in mainstream Israeli agriculture until the 1950s.

The rivers were largely unpolluted. At midcentury, a plentiful flow of 220,000 billion liters of water a year easily diluted whatever sewage reached the Yarkon River, and Haifa children swam in the Kishon. Groundwater contamination was for the most part unstudied in the hy-drology literature (retrospective scientific studies suggest that nitrate lev-els during the 1930s were quite low, averaging only two milligrams per liter).[159] Only in the 1950s did the first tests show unusually high concen-trations of chlorine and nitrates, today's primary pollutants. There were only six thousand privately owned cars on the roads, the equivalent of three weeks' nationwide car sales for 1997.

Many positive environmental achievements from the period deserve hon-orable mention. The blight of malaria had essentially been removed. A sys-tem of protected forests had been established. A practical train system was in place that could take people from Jerusalem to Europe or Africa. Sanitation had improved dramatically, and outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and ty-phoid were increasingly rare. Primitive but important environmental laws existed, and rudimentary government institutions and offices, including a

water commissioner, were in place. It is not surprising that some Israeli ex-perts feel that Palestine was better off environmentally as a result of the British Mandate.[160]

The three key factors that affect the magnitude of environmental damage—technology, affluence, and population—showed no cause for alarm. Technologies, for the most part, still reflected a nonindustrial econ-omy or the craftsmanship of light industry. By Western standards, both Jewish and Arab populations were decidedly poor, even if they were more prosperous than their neighbors in Arab countries. The level of personal consumption was low, and there was a culture of frugality (for example, toothpaste containers were recycled in Tel Aviv during World War II). But most important, population pressure was not yet felt. Whether their own panic, the urging of Arab leaders, or premeditated Zionist harassment was the cause,[161] the exodus of more than seven hundred thousand Arabs in 1948[162] left the land of Israel with demographic levels close to those that General Allenby had found when he conquered Palestine in 1918. From the inception of the Mandate, there were arguments between Zionist and British authorities about the ultimate carrying capacity of the land of Israel and how many immigrants could be absorbed.[163] By the 1940s, how-ever, even conservative estimates were in the millions.[164]

Although the Yishuv settlement proliferation was considerable, Zionist mythology tends to exaggerate the extent of pre-State development. For instance, thirteen thousand dunams of JNF woodlands, at most, were planted prior to 1948, much less than a single park such as the Yatir forest today.[165] Israel's coastline remained largely untouched. The little con-struction that did approach the shore was limited to one-or two-story structures. Aerial photographs show that only fifteen million square me-ters were urban or paved at that time (less than 8 percent of today's level), leaving 93 percent of the land undeveloped or under cultivation.[166]

But this snapshot does not tell the whole story. Judging the first half of the twentieth century by the environmental consequences of the second half yields a much tougher verdict. Of course, such a standard is an unfair basis for criticism. No nation on earth at the time had premonitions about the long-term persistence of pesticides, groundwater contamination, air pollution, ozone depletion, endocrine disruption, or the host of other eco-logical maladies that are of concern today. The more pressing concerns of food, shelter, the Nazi Holocaust, and political independence provided suf-ficient distraction. With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to identify wor-risome phenomena and environmental trends in Palestine between 1900 and 1949. These would reach disastrous proportions when fueled by the

new nation's ambitious agenda for development and by a phenomenal population increase—roughly one million people each decade.

The Jordan River offers a good example of such early warning signs. Pinhas Rutenberg broke a psychological barrier when he built his Naharayim power plant during the 1920s. Diversions and manipulations would continue until 1993, when the last natural segment of the Jordan River was redirected to establish a small hydroelectric facility at Kibbutz Kfar ha-Nassi.[167] The Jordan River had never been as “deep” and “wide” as the old American spiritual depicted it, but Israeli agriculture's titanic thirst would eventually reduce the river's flow to a salty trickle. (In 1900 the estimated annual inflow of water into the Dead Sea was 1.2 billion cubic meters. By 1940, this had dropped to 900 million cubic meters. Twenty years after the State was established, it was down to 810 million cubic meters, and by 1985, only 125 million cubic meters—a tenth of the original amount.[168]) Much of the River's little remaining water comes from diverted saline springs in the Kinneret Lake. Current water agree-ments between Israel and Jordan plan to tap even more. It is little wonder that the Dead Sea, the River's ultimate destination, is beginning to dry up.

Many other modern hazards originated in the early half of the century. Pipes were laid in many towns to collect sewage, but the sewage was then released untreated into the nearest river. In the case of Tiberias and Safed, the pipes reached Lake Kinneret.[169] DDT would not be completely phased out until the spring of 1997, after pressure from environmental groups and affected farming communities. Dizengoff never did solve Tel Aviv's lit-ter problem. Intensive agriculture would lead to massive overpumping and contamination of Israel's Coastal Aquifer from nitrates and salinity. An ag-gressive policy to encourage population growth remains an integral part of Israeli culture to this day.

The period also left behind certain values among Israeli leaders that were at the heart of key environmental problems. Zionist tradition, for in-stance, perceives agriculture as inherently virtuous. Many of Israel's first political leaders spent formative years behind a plow. Some, if not most, of their best friends really were farmers. Acquiescence to an agricultural lobby was not so much a political expediency as the moral thing to do. The fact that the lobby represented a myopic sector, insensitive to the long-term impacts of high-input, water-intensive agriculture, failed to penetrate Israeli politicians' conceptual universe.

While the economic infrastructure of the Yishuv had few severely polluting factories, industry and the employment it provided formed the engine that sustained immigrant absorption. With the removal of British

restrictions, the trickle of immigrants became a flood. Factories and pro-duction became even more highly venerated. The tradition of formal mo-nopolistic concessions to protect industrial interests would be expanded to include various forms of environmental immunity. The socialist tradition, which even the right-wing Likud chose not to jettison when it came to power in 1976, exacerbated this phenomenon. For much of Israel's first fifty years, the most severely polluting industries were government-owned corporations—the electric company, Israel Chemicals, and the oil refineries. Similarly the Israeli army and defense establishment remain the ultimate sacred cows. Israel's justifiable commitment to security has proved convenient for officers and managers in the vast consortium of military industries and army bases.[170] Above reproach, even today they are exempted from key environmental statutes such as Israel's National Parks and Nature Reserves law.[171]

The more charitable acknowledge the remarkable accomplishments of the Yishuv, which had not yet spoiled the solid environmental indicators existing at midcentury. It is also true, however, that the very zeal with which the settlers took vengeance on the mosquitoes spelled trouble for the land of Israel once it was harnessed by an energetic young state.

previous chapter
Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949
next chapter