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Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949
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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]

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