Israel and the Environment

What do Disneyland and Israel have in common? Both have a bad record when it comes to disposal of toxic waste. Despite its benevolent image, Disneyland was fined a considerable sum a couple of years ago by the Environmental Protection Agency. Israel produces 100,000 tons of toxic waste each year which is transported to and destroyed at Ramat Hovav in the Negev. A Danish firm, Chemtrol Inc., was hired by the government agency, Environmental Services Company (Ramat Hovav) Ltd, to survey the situation. It discovered that only 50 per cent of this hazardous material actually reached the facility for disposal. The rest appears to have been illegally disposed of by manufacturers, user factories and the agricultural sector. The ecological network, Econet Israel, commented that “whether this poisonous waste was buried on company property, washed into the sewage or dumped in some convenient wadi, it poses a serious threat to the underground water resources of the country and in some cases to Lake Kinneret, one of Israel’s principal water reservoirs”.

There have been concerted efforts by the Israeli Ministry of Environment to deal with this growing problem through the establishment of a Division of Dangerous Substances; the image they project is one of technical know-how and concern for the environment. For example, the Israel Export Institute recently produced a paper which expounds on the numerous environmental and innovative technologies available for export. In January of this year, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs produced a paper on regional cooperation on the environment for the ongoing dialogue with the Palestinians and neighbouring Arab states. It suggested that joint disposal and recycling plants should be established and further commented that “toxic waste disposal is a problem which all developed countries must face. The solution involves a suitable site, the proper technology and adequate finding.” It also suggested that there should be common dumping sites.

In one sense, these important and well-meaning initiatives have obscured the importance of the issue and other related environmental concerns within Israel itself. For example, there appear to be no projects whatsoever which are geared towards assisting Israel with this problem, from any of the traditional Jewish fundraising bodies in Britain. Israel established an Environmental Protection Service nearly twenty years ago. This followed in the wake of the Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. Yet a formal Ministry of the Environment did not come into existence until December 1988. Until that date, nine separate ministries shared responsibility for toxic material. The resulting confusion benefitted the polluters.

In 1989, a huge number of fish were poisoned in the River Jordan. An investigation showed that there were twenty-nine separate sites where farmers had installed apparatus to service pumps and taps which washed unused pesticides out of farm machinery directly into the river. This practice had in fact been going on for several years but no ministry responsible had done anything about it. The discovery of such official incompetence has accelerated a transfer of powers to the Ministry of Environment.

Despite this, Econet has demanded a faster pace of centralization of authority under the Ministry of Environment.

Until now, a good part of the control of toxic substances was handled directly through licensing businesses at the local municipal level. Unfortunately, the municipal authorities are often working under business regulations that lack any possibility of effective action in the case of violations or the fine for such violations is laughably small.

In addition to calling for heavy fines and even criminal suits against offenders, Econet has drawn attention to domestic irresponsibility. For example, huge numbers of batteries were utilized during the Gulf War to operate torches, radios and other necessary equipment. They were dumped into communal rubbish tips as soon as the crisis receded. The chemicals released from the batteries on disintegration have now found their way into aquifiers and water reservoirs.

Last but not least, there is the question of radioactive waste which is under the control of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. All efforts by Econet and other groups

to discover the location of disposal sites and to find out the processes used in handling toxic radioactive waste have proved to be fruitless. This waste which began to accumulate in the 1950s has been classified as “security” which means the subject is closed to the public. Had other toxic waste been so classified, there could have been no public outcry over leaky containers, overflowing storage ponds, etc. While we in no way doubt the good intentions of the Atomic Energy Commission, it is a basic rule, a rule that has been proven time and again, that the polluter may not be the same agency that checks its own safety procedures. In the end, someone must “guard the guardians”. Nuclear waste must also be subject to public inspection.

Econet has also called for legislation to make local councils responsible for the establishment of collection points; and public education is clearly a priority. This important issue is certainly one which has been carelessly overlooked by British Jews who identify closely with Israel, but it is undoubtedly an area where a “green” diaspora can now make a significant contribution.

Jewish Quarterly Summer 1992

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