Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon is advancing a proposal to regulate pasture allocation - something no Israeli government has ever done. The bill authorizes the ministry to allocate grazing land, enforce the law and play a major role in preserving the environment.

The legal status of one-fifth of Israel's territory, currently categorized as pasture, has never been established. This has led sheep and cattle farmers to clash violently over grazing areas.

The bill, now being examined by the Justice Ministry and which will soon be submitted to the ministers legislative committee, says the Israel Lands Administration will give the Agriculture Ministry an annual breakdown of available grazing land.

The ministry will set up a pasture council to determine policy and examine farmers' requests for permits to use lands for pasture. The farmers will be required to meet several conditions, including no prior convictions in grazing offenses, to obtain permits.

Shmuel Friedman, head of the Agriculture Ministry's rural development, says there are 500 registered cattle and sheep growers, and three times that many unregistered growers. Herds consist of some 60,000 cattle and 80,000 sheep. Presently some five million dunams are earmarked for pasture, both officially and unofficially.

In some areas, such as Jewish National Fund forests, pasture growth is seasonal. Bedouin herds graze in these forests in season.

The law does not address Negev lands currently in dispute between the state and the Bedouins.

"We have great difficulties in allocating pasture and enforcing it," Friedman said. "Cattle and sheep farmers have complained that the allocation is not done openly and is determined by political parties, and have sued us. The law will change all of this, as the allocation process will be professional and transparent." Legislation will enable the ministry to use inspectors authorized to investigate and even confiscate livestock, he added.

Simhon said environmental concerns, such as thinning shrubbery to reduce fires and improving the land as a result of the grazing herds' secretions, would also benefit from the legislation.

The ecological benefit of grazing is evident in Kibbutz Beit Nir's pastures. The grazing cows control the shrubbery growth and the cowherds' presence reduces illegal hunting in the area. As a result, deer, jackals and hyenas, which are frequently sighted in this area, move safely through the fields.