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Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949
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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]

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