Text size

In the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Corps base in the center of the country, every time a soldier approaches a streetlight after dark the light goes on. When the soldier moves away, the light goes off. It isn't an part of an advanced system for detecting intruders, it's an electricity-saving measure based on a movement-detection device.

Recycling and energy conservation have become bywords at today's army bases, part of the IDF's effort to prove that it is genuinely trying to come to terms with, and to change, its history as one of the country's greatest polluters and consumers of resources such as water and electricity.

For years, large quantities of nearly raw sewage flowed from IDF bases into rivers and water sources. Leaking jet-fuel pipes at the Hatzor base of the Israel Air Force caused one of the country's worst incidents of groundwater pollution. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that 40 percent of the infrastructure in the IDF's bases date from the British Mandate, which ended in 1948, and do not meet current environmental safety codes.

According to figures presented this month, by a senior official in the IDF Planning Directorate, at an IDF conference on environmental issues, problems early this month, the army imposes various restrictions on 53 percent of Israel's territory. These include barring entry to training grounds and restricting the height of buildings in more than 10 percent of the country, including in the major cities. The Defense Ministry is represented on all major planning and zoning councils.

"There are few parallels to this abroad," says geographer Dr. Amiram Oren, who co-authored "A Land in Khaki: The Geographic Dimension of Defense in Israel" (Carmel Publishing, 2008, in Hebrew). Oren recently invited experts to Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute to discuss the army's affect on land use.

The significant change seen in the IDF's approach to the environment was precipitated by a highly critical State Comptroller's report issued four years ago, which focused on pollution from army gas stations and sewage pipes.

According to IAF figures, the treatment of the jet fuel infrastructure has been improved and leaks have declined to a few isolated incidents a year. The air force is particularly pretentious when it comes to the environment. It calls its campaign "Blue goes green," a reference to its uniform colors and is planning, among other things, the construction of a large solar power station at the Nevatim base.

In response to Environmental Protection Ministry demands the IDF began with sewage runoff from bases in the Lake Kinneret catchment area. IDF officials say that matter will be dealt with through long-term planning, in accordance with budgetary restraints.

In recent years the Planning Directorate has assembled a panel of officers and noncommissioned officers with professional training in environmental issues. Some of them deal only with environmental matters, while others do so in addition to their other duties.

Sgt. 1st Class Effie Amsalem is responsible environmental quality on several bases, including the Intelligence Corps base in the center of the country. "I hate waste and decided to promote the installation of devices for saving water and electricity wherever possible," he says. Faucets are fitted with meter devices that deliver a specific amount of water, and motion detectors will soon be installed on room air-conditioners, so that they operate only when there are people in the room. Amsalem is working on replace diesel fuel with cooking gas in the water boilers. The watering system is already fitted with monitors, and Amsalem hopes to introduce both synthetic grass and solar panels for further savings in water and electricity use, respectively.

At the conference this month various IDF units presented environmentally friendly inventions developed by their officer. These include using missile storage crates to collect oil or gasoline, and using solar panels to provide electricity for fuel pumps. One senior officer presented an innovative method for breaking down obsolete explosives using bacteria, which was published in a professional journal.

Environmental Protection Ministry officials, however, say the defense establishment objects to expanding the powers of ministry inspectors to allow them to enter bases and monitor issues surrounding fuel leaks, sewage treatment and the storage of hazardous materials. "Some of the inspectors can be given a high security clearance so that they can enter even sensitive installations," Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan says. "The army wants advance coordination, but then it's not really enforcement the way we do it in civilian plants, for example."

Erdan claims that currently there is an absurd situation in which his ministry prosecutes factory managers or mayors for failing to treat sewage properly, while the IDF has 150 bases with no sewage transport and treatment system. "It really is an expensive project to repair the entire infrastructure, but I don't understand this description of a long-term plan. What exactly is long-term - 100 years? - 1,000 years? This is an entity with a budget of tens of billions a year and I'm sure that they can work with the Finance Ministry to get additional funds," Erdan said.

While change is evident on certain fronts, the IDF is having much more difficulty shifting its policy governing the control of the land it needs for training and for storing equipment. In the past the IDF received public support for its control over the land, and groups such as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel were willing to make concessions for the sake of security needs. "In the past we agreed to the construction of an air force installation in a nature reserve in the Galilee, because the air force commander explained to us that from this installation they could see every plane that takes off from Damascus," explained Yoav Sagi, a leading SPNI official. Environmental organizations also understood that the army's presence often prevents civilian construction, turning the IDF into the protector of open spaces.

This approach changed with growing civil awareness of the need for public monitoring of planning and construction procedures, and of the great damage rendered to areas near military installations, such as at Atlit.

Environmental and legal advocacy organizations and planning experts have long demanded amendments to the article in the Planning and Construction Law that addresses the defense establishment. It grants the army broad powers to build as it sees fit and to oppose civil construction plans, and its permits are issued by a special planning committee whose proceedings are classified.

Legal scholars and experts who discussed the issue at the Van Leer Institute last year recommended expanding this committee and changing its members' security clearance to improve monitoring of military construction plans. They also proposed setting time limits on expansion projects in security installations and restricting the defense establishment's veto power over civilian projects.

In response, the army, the Interior Ministry and the attorney general recently approved the "security installation procedure," according to which if the army submits a construction plan that contradicts existing plans the committee will approve it only if it is proven that the construction is either urgent or classified and therefore ineligible for the usual planning process.

The experts also propose enabling public input on military construction plans in certain cases, for the first time, albeit for a limited period of time only. In addition, the final decisions would remain with the committee.

Military planning officials say that with the exception of secret or operational installations the proposed changes would create a procedure similar to civil planning procedures. Oren says this is not enough: "The army wants to keep all the power and therefore did not act to change the law. Effectively we are in the same situation, and the propsed amendment does not in effect change the army's involvement in civilian planning. We must make changes, via legislation. Public pressure must be applied to the defense establishment so that it will request the change on its own."