For many years, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel has been doing its job resolutely. It fights the establishment of new communities or isolated farms in open areas and tries to keep roads from being paved in unique nature sites.
However, this determination almost completely disappears when it comes to nature outside the Green Line. Aside from a few isolated cases, the largest environmental organization in Israel has ignored the tremendous construction drive in the West Bank, which has resulted in new settlements, roads and outposts, and which continues at full force today. While one might say that an organization that defines itself as apolitical shouldn't get involved in what is happening in the territories, SPNI is already quite involved. It has been operating field schools in the settlements for many years, which serve as an educational arm of the organization as well as a way of legitimizing construction in the settlements. The Ofra field school in the West Bank, for instance, recently conducted a tour of illegal outposts.
SPNI says the trips are for educational purposes and do not indicate support for illegal activity. But it's difficult not to view trips involving visits to wineries or olive presses operating on outposts, which are meant to show visitors how high-quality wine and olive oil are produced, as expressions of support. Within the Green Line, SPNI operates completely differently. It doesn't support trips to wineries or olive presses in isolated farms in the Negev, which it says were established illegally and in contravention of logical environmental and planning considerations.
SPNI wages campaigns against such initiatives as the authorization of the Galilee village of Kadita, which was founded illegally, or establishment of commercial centers on agricultural land. On the other hand, the organization's leaders have barely raised their voices against construction beyond the Green Line, even though it involves ignoring Israeli and international law and trampling the rights of Palestinian landowners. SPNI policy appears to be that visiting there is fine, and very instructive and educational, but that a decisive call for an end to such activity is too political, and unbecoming for an organization that wants broad public support.
Even when it got involved in the struggle to change the route of the separation fence, for the most part SPNI limited its intervention to parts of the fence situated in desert areas. The environmental group did not deal with the harm the fence was causing to the agricultural land that had so concerned it when the land was within the Green Line. SPNI, along with other environmental groups, is also not bothered by the fact that thousands of housing units are being built on the hills east of Jerusalem. From SPNI's perspective, this construction is an acceptable alternative to construction west of the city, which it opposed for reasons of environmental and landscape conservation.
The combination of almost total disregard for environmental issues beyond the Green Line and of providing educational support for the settlement enterprise through field school activities is turning SPNI into an active partner in the occupation, even if that was not its intention. This casts a shadow over the organization's pretensions to being a social-environmental group that acts on behalf of the entire population. SPNI cannot compensate for this with the activities it leads in Israeli Arab and other communities or with its recent cooperation with Palestinian ornithologists.
Former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat was asked once how he reconciles his membership in the Likud with his moderate political views, and said he was a Likud member up to the Green Line. Likewise, it can be said that SPNI is an environmental organization in the full sense of the word only up to the Green Line.
The SPNI paradox is irreconcilable as long as the group continues maintaining field schools in the territories. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the arm of the organization involved in waging preservation campaigns has a great deal of autonomy, and its members operate separately from those in the field schools. The advocacy arm can speak out every once in a while about the tremendous damage Israel is doing to the landscape beyond the Green Line, attempt to influence the planning procedures in the territories, and help other environmental groups wage their struggles.
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