Israeli tanks severely damaged one of the Negev's most important nature reserves last week when they crossed it in violation of agreements between the army and nature authorities.
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority has filed a complaint with Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, commander of the Israel Defense Forces' ground forces. INPA personnel from the Eilat area discovered major damage last Friday near the Shizafon Stream.
An initial examination, with the local tank brigade's commander taking part, revealed that two tanks and another vehicle had done the damage the previous day after leaving their base and heading north.
The tank crews encountered a sign at the confluence of the Shizafon and Tzinim streams bearing the insignia of both the nature authority and the brigade. It states that passage through the nature reserve is prohibited to armored vehicles.
The tanks ignored the sign and entered the reserve, their treads churning up the soil and crushing plants and burrows of small animals. They made sharp turns, causing damage that the nature authorities say is irreversible. On their way back they damaged hiking trails.
"This conduct constitutes a harsh violation of all rules of behavior in a nature reserve and the army's orders," the INPA's acting director general, Modi Oron, wrote to Turgeman. "We view this severely and we intend to act to bring those at fault to justice."
The IDF Spokesman's Office responded: "Brigade 460 conducted an exercise near the reserve and due to a mistake in navigation tanks went off the planned path and moved through the area in question. The matter was investigated by the brigade commander in cooperation with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and conclusions from the incident were drawn. Procedures were dealt with and assistance offered to repair the damage to the reserve."
Vehicles cause particularly severe damage to desert land because their tracks change the soil's drainage pattern and thus compromise plant life and soil stability. They also cause long-term damage to the landscape. The ground in the area the tanks crossed is of a very special type known as hamada - soil covered with stones weathered by the wind.
The army's activities in nature reserves are governed by a number of agreements signed with the INPA and between the INPA and individual units.
The basic principle is that in times of emergency or during operations the army will be less restricted, but regular activities are limited to certain sectors of nature reserves. Even in those areas, the army must coordinate its activities with the INPA. The army is allowed to cross nature reserves, but only by certain routes.
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