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Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949
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In general, there is a tendency to frame impressions about early Zionist environmental crimes and misdemeanors in the light of contemporary ecological knowledge. Even by such standards, however, environmental conditions in the land of Israel were in decidedly reasonable shape in 1949. After the industrial boom of World War II in particular, the newly founded Jewish state was much less agrarian than Palestine had been at the start of the century, but air pollution was still moderate enough that a modern nomenclature had not entered the vernacular. (Twelve years later, when Shimon Kanovich proposed his nuisance law, he would refer to it as “harmful smoke.”) The prevailing agricultural practices would be defined today as low-impact, if not organic, for pesticides and synthetic fertilizers were not heavily used in mainstream Israeli agriculture until the 1950s.

The rivers were largely unpolluted. At midcentury, a plentiful flow of 220,000 billion liters of water a year easily diluted whatever sewage reached the Yarkon River, and Haifa children swam in the Kishon. Groundwater contamination was for the most part unstudied in the hy-drology literature (retrospective scientific studies suggest that nitrate lev-els during the 1930s were quite low, averaging only two milligrams per liter).[159] Only in the 1950s did the first tests show unusually high concen-trations of chlorine and nitrates, today's primary pollutants. There were only six thousand privately owned cars on the roads, the equivalent of three weeks' nationwide car sales for 1997.

Many positive environmental achievements from the period deserve hon-orable mention. The blight of malaria had essentially been removed. A sys-tem of protected forests had been established. A practical train system was in place that could take people from Jerusalem to Europe or Africa. Sanitation had improved dramatically, and outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and ty-phoid were increasingly rare. Primitive but important environmental laws existed, and rudimentary government institutions and offices, including a

water commissioner, were in place. It is not surprising that some Israeli ex-perts feel that Palestine was better off environmentally as a result of the British Mandate.[160]

The three key factors that affect the magnitude of environmental damage—technology, affluence, and population—showed no cause for alarm. Technologies, for the most part, still reflected a nonindustrial econ-omy or the craftsmanship of light industry. By Western standards, both Jewish and Arab populations were decidedly poor, even if they were more prosperous than their neighbors in Arab countries. The level of personal consumption was low, and there was a culture of frugality (for example, toothpaste containers were recycled in Tel Aviv during World War II). But most important, population pressure was not yet felt. Whether their own panic, the urging of Arab leaders, or premeditated Zionist harassment was the cause,[161] the exodus of more than seven hundred thousand Arabs in 1948[162] left the land of Israel with demographic levels close to those that General Allenby had found when he conquered Palestine in 1918. From the inception of the Mandate, there were arguments between Zionist and British authorities about the ultimate carrying capacity of the land of Israel and how many immigrants could be absorbed.[163] By the 1940s, how-ever, even conservative estimates were in the millions.[164]

Although the Yishuv settlement proliferation was considerable, Zionist mythology tends to exaggerate the extent of pre-State development. For instance, thirteen thousand dunams of JNF woodlands, at most, were planted prior to 1948, much less than a single park such as the Yatir forest today.[165] Israel's coastline remained largely untouched. The little con-struction that did approach the shore was limited to one-or two-story structures. Aerial photographs show that only fifteen million square me-ters were urban or paved at that time (less than 8 percent of today's level), leaving 93 percent of the land undeveloped or under cultivation.[166]

But this snapshot does not tell the whole story. Judging the first half of the twentieth century by the environmental consequences of the second half yields a much tougher verdict. Of course, such a standard is an unfair basis for criticism. No nation on earth at the time had premonitions about the long-term persistence of pesticides, groundwater contamination, air pollution, ozone depletion, endocrine disruption, or the host of other eco-logical maladies that are of concern today. The more pressing concerns of food, shelter, the Nazi Holocaust, and political independence provided suf-ficient distraction. With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to identify wor-risome phenomena and environmental trends in Palestine between 1900 and 1949. These would reach disastrous proportions when fueled by the

new nation's ambitious agenda for development and by a phenomenal population increase—roughly one million people each decade.

The Jordan River offers a good example of such early warning signs. Pinhas Rutenberg broke a psychological barrier when he built his Naharayim power plant during the 1920s. Diversions and manipulations would continue until 1993, when the last natural segment of the Jordan River was redirected to establish a small hydroelectric facility at Kibbutz Kfar ha-Nassi.[167] The Jordan River had never been as “deep” and “wide” as the old American spiritual depicted it, but Israeli agriculture's titanic thirst would eventually reduce the river's flow to a salty trickle. (In 1900 the estimated annual inflow of water into the Dead Sea was 1.2 billion cubic meters. By 1940, this had dropped to 900 million cubic meters. Twenty years after the State was established, it was down to 810 million cubic meters, and by 1985, only 125 million cubic meters—a tenth of the original amount.[168]) Much of the River's little remaining water comes from diverted saline springs in the Kinneret Lake. Current water agree-ments between Israel and Jordan plan to tap even more. It is little wonder that the Dead Sea, the River's ultimate destination, is beginning to dry up.

Many other modern hazards originated in the early half of the century. Pipes were laid in many towns to collect sewage, but the sewage was then released untreated into the nearest river. In the case of Tiberias and Safed, the pipes reached Lake Kinneret.[169] DDT would not be completely phased out until the spring of 1997, after pressure from environmental groups and affected farming communities. Dizengoff never did solve Tel Aviv's lit-ter problem. Intensive agriculture would lead to massive overpumping and contamination of Israel's Coastal Aquifer from nitrates and salinity. An ag-gressive policy to encourage population growth remains an integral part of Israeli culture to this day.

The period also left behind certain values among Israeli leaders that were at the heart of key environmental problems. Zionist tradition, for in-stance, perceives agriculture as inherently virtuous. Many of Israel's first political leaders spent formative years behind a plow. Some, if not most, of their best friends really were farmers. Acquiescence to an agricultural lobby was not so much a political expediency as the moral thing to do. The fact that the lobby represented a myopic sector, insensitive to the long-term impacts of high-input, water-intensive agriculture, failed to penetrate Israeli politicians' conceptual universe.

While the economic infrastructure of the Yishuv had few severely polluting factories, industry and the employment it provided formed the engine that sustained immigrant absorption. With the removal of British

restrictions, the trickle of immigrants became a flood. Factories and pro-duction became even more highly venerated. The tradition of formal mo-nopolistic concessions to protect industrial interests would be expanded to include various forms of environmental immunity. The socialist tradition, which even the right-wing Likud chose not to jettison when it came to power in 1976, exacerbated this phenomenon. For much of Israel's first fifty years, the most severely polluting industries were government-owned corporations—the electric company, Israel Chemicals, and the oil refineries. Similarly the Israeli army and defense establishment remain the ultimate sacred cows. Israel's justifiable commitment to security has proved convenient for officers and managers in the vast consortium of military industries and army bases.[170] Above reproach, even today they are exempted from key environmental statutes such as Israel's National Parks and Nature Reserves law.[171]

The more charitable acknowledge the remarkable accomplishments of the Yishuv, which had not yet spoiled the solid environmental indicators existing at midcentury. It is also true, however, that the very zeal with which the settlers took vengeance on the mosquitoes spelled trouble for the land of Israel once it was harnessed by an energetic young state.

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Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949
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