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Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949
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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.

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