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Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949
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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.

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