Preferred Citation: Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2002 2002.

Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949


Industrial development was a central part of the Zionist agenda. By 1931 the new census showed as many Jews employed in factories and small

workshops as in agriculture.[126] The influx of “capitalist” immigrants from Germany (and the estimated 63 million pounds sterling they brought with them) spurred economic expansion, in particular in metal trades, textiles, and chemicals. Between 1930 and 1937, the number of industrial firms in-creased from 6000 to 14,000, with a corresponding jump in the “indus-trial” work force, from 19,000 to 55,000. During this period electricity usage in the Yishuv increased sevenfold.[127] Four years into World War II, industrial production reached new highs, as output increased 75 percent.

As in the Arab sector, few Jewish manufacturing ventures at midcentury involved heavy industries. There were several notable exceptions, however, where more-polluting industrial activity took place. The environmental im-pacts of these factories became problematic after they expanded during the 1950s and 1960s. Most notable was the industrial infrastructure (Figure 3) that sprang up to meet the postwar construction and immigration housing needs.

In 1909, sixty wealthy families left the city of Jaffa to build homes on its northern sand dunes. Like the Jerusalem Jews who escaped from the old city thirty years earlier, they too were looking for a moral, pastoral life.[128] They gave their settlement Nahum Sokolow's freely translated Hebrew name for Herzl's novel Altneuland; twenty-five years later, Tel Aviv was the most populous city in the land.[129] Its Municipality's Technical Department reported that during the late 1920s building increased geo-metrically, from 13,000 square meters in 1927, to 29,000 in 1929, to 44,000 square meters in 1930.[130] In absolute terms, the housing needs of the Arab population were even greater during this period. The new factories that provided building materials employed 6 to 7 percent of the Jewish labor-ers in the country.[131] One was the dusty Nesher Cement plant, established in 1919 on the outskirts of Haifa. Nesher prospered so much that it even-tually established a monopoly on cement production in Israel. The partic-ulate emissions from its smokestacks would become sufficiently severe during the 1960s and 1970s to spark the first real grassroots movement for air quality in Haifa.

Many obstacles stymied heavy industry in the Yishuv. One threshold problem involved the availability of capital. Early in the century Herzl en-couraged Zalman Levontin to establish the Anglo-Israel Bank, which he did in 1903.[132] The lion's share of official Zionist investment, however, went into land acquisition and reclamation rather than manufacturing. Another problem was Article 18 of the Mandate, which stipulated that there should “be no discrimination in Palestine against goods originating in or destined for any of the countries which are members of the League

of Nations.” The inability to protect fragile startup ventures from interna-tional imports constituted a major drawback for entrepreneurs.

Although the Mandatory government offered no capital to subsidize early heavy industries, the “concessions” that they granted were often suf-ficient to spur private foreign investment. Private Jewish money invested in Palestine during the Mandate reached one hundred million pounds ster-ling, four times the level of “communal Jewish investment.”[133] The oil re-fineries in Haifa, the two potash plants along the Dead Sea, and, of course, electrical power stations, all enjoyed special arrangements with the Mandatory government. In retrospect, the tradition of government pa-tronage toward monopolistic industries proved to be an unfortunate part of the Mandate's environmental legacy. The extraterritorial, privileged status of these corporations engendered a dismissive attitude toward regulatory authority. For years after the establishment of Israel, this status hindered effective government control of industrial pollution.

Bureaucracy also slowed Zionist industrial progress. Moshe Novomeski arrived in Israel in 1920, eager to put his training in engineering and expe-rience in Siberian gold mining to work. The Dead Sea—the lowest place on earth (and at times one of the hottest)—is a far cry from Siberia, and yet ex-ploiting the mineral-rich lake quickly became an obsession for Novomeski. British enthusiasm for the endeavor was lukewarm. It took nine years of sustained efforts by Novomeski, including overcoming opposition in the British Parliament, to win a complicated tender. Only then was it possible to attract American Jewish investors and to commence mining.[134]

Within two years, the twin facilities of the Palestine Potash Company employed four hundred workers and exported thousands of tons of potash. By the end of the 1930s, annual sales would reach half a million Palestinian pounds.[135] The northern Kalia plant was destroyed during the War of Independence. The southern Sodom plant, however, survived to become a true industrial behemoth. Its present capacity of two million tons per year has had an enormous environmental impact.[136] The mining operations have obliterated any remnant of the natural landscape in the southern Dead Sea area. No less important, for many years the facility mined the bromine for one-third of the world's methyl bromide, a highly toxic pesticide re-sponsible for destroying one-tenth of the stratospheric ozone layer.[137]

Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949

Preferred Citation: Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2002 2002.