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Israel, Arabs, and the Environment
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Technically, Israeli Arabs are full-fledged citizens. As an ethnic and reli-gious minority in a Jewish State, however, their status in fact falls short of equality. The various legal manifestations of the preferential treatment for Jewish Israelis have been catalogued elsewhere.[22] Inequality is not always due to direct government discrimination, however. The very existence of a privately funded Jewish Agency, which plays a key role in a variety of so-cial spheres, guarantees unequal results. The Agency has a natural prefer-ence for Jewish clients. While there is legitimate debate over the validity of any given social policy, even the most passionate Zionist patriot would agree that Israeli Arabs do not enjoy all the privileges of the Jewish ma-jority. But does this double standard also extend to the environmental realm?

The answer goes to the definition of what is known as “environmental justice.”[23] The question is not whether Israeli Arabs suffer from noise, water pollution, and air pollution: By virtue of the fact that they live in Israel, they do. The salient question is: To what extent does this population suffer greater exposures or impaired access to natural resources as a result of its minority status? For example, there is little doubt that when Israel sited Beer Sheva's most-polluting chemical industries, as well as the na-tion's only hazardous-waste facility, at Ramat Hovav, it did so because it felt that there was nobody there. The scattered Bedouin who camped “across the street” from the hazardous-waste facility were in no position to object. This unfortunate juxtaposition has produced a disproportion-ately heavy environmental burden for this population and one that falls squarely in the realm of environmental justice (the Bedouin eventually used the exposures as a legal basis for demanding alternative lands[24]). Ramat Hovav represents a case so extreme as to make it almost anom-alous. And indeed, there is no shortage of Jewish horror stories involving unreasonable pockets of environmental risk.

Is there systematic environmental injustice towards Israel's Arab resi-dents? If so, identifying it is a particularly vexing conundrum. Just five of many possible caveats reflect the complexity of the issue. First of all, the baseline environmental situation in 1948 was fundamentally asymmetri-cal. Indoor plumbing and other basic sanitary services were unknown in most Arab villages. The disparities have been reduced dramatically. For instance,

by the end of the 1960s, almost every Israeli village had running water. Golda Meir's self-satisfied description of official Israeli efforts to improve the quality of life for its Arab citizens represents more than just an official perception of the situation during the pre-1967 period: “Those Arabs who stayed in Israel … had an easier life than those who left. There was hardly an Arab village with electricity or running water in all of Palestine before 1948, and within twenty years there was hardly an Arab village in Israel that wasn't connected to the national electric grid, or a home without running water.”[25]

Meir's patronizing tone as well as the implication that the government was doing taxpaying citizens a favor may be annoying to some. Nonetheless, during a period when the young country faced economic hardships and profound security risks, remarkable progress was made. As a result, water consumption in Arab villages tended to rise twice as fast as population growth.[26] The question remains: Was it enough?

The second caveat involves cultural factors that might explain environ-mental differences—results attributable to community autonomy rather than injustice. Arab Israelis often have different ideas from those of their Jewish counterparts about how to build houses, plant gardens, establish parks, educate, issue licenses, and so forth. Pig farms, not surprisingly, are not a problem in the Jewish sector, but some Christian Arabs own them, and they are a considerable nuisance for many Arab Israelis.[27] In a related matter, having left most of their large pre-1948 population centers, Israeli Arab residents tended to concentrate in small and mid-sized villages.[28] As in any rural sector, objectively there is a different environmental reality—for better or for worse. Such issues lie outside the realm of environmental justice.

The third caveat concerns an inherent tension, heightened by the Arab-Israeli geographic reality, between traditional culture and modern eco-nomic activities. The “blue lines” drawn into the local municipal master plans, constraining the expansion of Arab (and Jewish) settlement, exacer-bated land shortages within the villages. Fathers traditionally divided their land holdings among their sons. As family size grew and land holdings re-mained frozen, the size of the subdivision shrank. This led to two envi-ronmental dynamics: a shortage of public areas (for example, Israeli Arab schools were frequently built far outside the villages, for lack of available sites) and a tendency to concentrate individual agricultural (and later in-dustrial) activity in increasingly urban family plots. Keeping livestock out-side the safe confines of the village is often seen as imprudent. In a related phenomenon, in the Bedouin town of Rahat, there is a high percentage of

truck drivers among residents. Attempts to move the potentially explosive gasoline pumps from private homes and concentrate them in a nonresi-dential location have been singularly unsuccessful.[29] The fuel is perceived as better protected nearby.

A fourth confounding factor is occasional discrimination within Israel's Arab sector itself. For example, members of the Bedouin neighborhood in Shfaram—an Arab city—point to a pattern of harassment that includes a predatory zoning policy imposed on them by the city government. They claim that the policy is motivated by the local Arab leaders' resentment of Bedouin fealty and military service to the State of Israel.[30]

Finally, economic disadvantage does not always lead to environmental disadvantage. Ironically, the lack of heavy industries in the Arab sector (which might be associated with economic inequality) may also mean that environmental exposures to hazardous chemicals is higher among Jewish Israelis. While Israeli Arabs may justifiably resent a per capita car owner-ship that is only 35 percent of the general population's, certainly it bene-fits air quality in their communities.[31]

The most basic public health data do not support environmental dis-crimination. Arab cancer rates in Israel between 1960 and 1995, for exam-ple, were substantially lower, among both men and women, than those for the parallel Jewish cohorts.[32] Ministry of Health expert Gary Ginsburg confirms that Arab life expectancies are slightly lower than Jewish life ex-pectancies, but this is due to a higher infant mortality rate as a result of poorer socioeconomic conditions rather than exposure to environmental hazards. Indeed, his calculations suggest that in terms of preventable mor-tality, Sephardic Jews are actually slightly worse off than Israeli Arabs. The closest thing to a pollution-related cancer cluster that his epidemiological evaluation uncovered involved elevated lung cancer rates near the Nesher cement plant in Ramla and near an asbestos factory in Akko, coincidentally two of Israel's four “mixed” Arab/Jewish cities.[33] Nonetheless, there are statistics that suggest that discrimination is manifested in specific envi-ronmental media.

The most blatant indicators are in natural resource allocation. Arab farmers, who cultivated over 10 percent of Israel's crop area in 1974–1975, received only 2 percent of the water allocated to agriculture.[34] There has been some improvement; however, by 1996 Jewish per capita use of water was still 120 cubic meters per person per year compared with 42 cubic me-ters among Israeli Arabs.[35] It is no coincidence that the Jewish Agency owns one-third of Mekorot, Israel's waterworks. Likewise, no Arabs have ever held senior positions in Israel's Water Commission.


Dr. Fayad Sheabar, an MIT-trained public-interest environmental scien-tist, ranks the top five environmental problems in the Arab sector:

  1. An unhealthy drinking water supply

  2. Insufficient basic sewage infrastructure and practically no advanced treatment

  3. Small industries in urban areas, producing air and noise pollution

  4. Proximity of quarries to Arab villages

  5. Pesticide abuse

Because of a general paucity of data and empirical research on the sub-ject, such assessments are somewhat impressionistic and less than defini-tive. Nonetheless, with the exception of pesticide exposures, the severity of the environmental insult to Arab communities appears ostensibly worse for each case than in the Jewish sector. The implication is that there is an ethnic or “environmental justice” association. For instance, bacterial con-tamination of drinking water is more common in the Arab sector because of the continued presence of septic tanks and the frequently leaky sewage collection systems. Health directives to citizens instructing them to boil their drinking water, especially during the summer months, are far more common in the Israeli Arab sector than in Jewish cities.

Many small cottage industries emerged in the basements, garages, or backyards of Arab cities and villages as a reflection of an industrious but capital-poor population.[36] A number of these enterprises operate without a proper business license. Although most are small, the collective environ-mental impact of metal and aluminum works, cleaners, and carpenters can be considerable. Establishment of distinct industrial areas seems to be an obvious solution—except that there have been cases where the cure is worse than the disease. For instance, the city of Shfaram created an indus-trial area inside the city limits. As a result, concrete plants were located four meters from the windows of private homes, producing dust concen-trations ten times the legal limit.[37] It is little wonder that the exposed neighbors suffered from chronic respiratory illnesses.

Such dynamics are by no means unique to Israel's Arab sector. For ex-ample, during the 1990s, Israel's agricultural moshav settlements began to suffer from an influx of illegal factories and a similar intermingling of in-dustrial and residential uses.[38] The problem in the Jewish sector, however, warranted a high-level commission, investigation, and Cabinet-approved recommendations.[39]

There are less tangible factors used to support Israeli Arab claims of environmental injustice. These include nonquantifiable areas where Arab

communities seem to fall short, such as available green spaces or general cleanliness. In “mixed” cities, where Jews and Arabs live together, such as Akko and Ramla,Arab neighborhoods are perceived as grungier.[40] Separating official responsibility from the contribution of the local Arab communities in these instances is practically impossible, and personal predisposition tends to color one's conclusions. Sewage treatment, however, offers a compelling ex-ample of differential levels of environmental quality and quality of life.

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Israel, Arabs, and the Environment
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