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Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949
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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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