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A common sight at construction sites throughout the country is luxury properties with seductive advertising signs, and piles of construction waste next to them that no one seems to be in a hurry to remove. Instead of trees and green spaces, the new tenants get an empty lot littered with debris that all too often is toxic.

The piles of construction waste reflect disregard for the law. The extent of the phenomenon is manifest in separate studies on the enforcement of environmental legislation that were published recently by the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies, Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University. Judging by the findings of the researchers, those who dump construction waste and pollute the country's air and its water sources have little to worry about.

The studies show that the offenders are rarely caught - only 1 out of 1,000 environmental scofflaws is apprehended - and when they are, the punishments meted out are laughable. They are most commonly given small fines, which many offenders don't bother to pay. In the absence of sufficient trained personnel and adequate pollution-monitoring equipments, the worst polluters often escape unpunished.

The Environmental Protection Ministry doesn't have the human resources and the budget to effectively enforce the law, and the enforcement powers given to local authorities are inadequate. This must be changed, but important as heightening enforcement might be it is not enough. Israeli society needs a more profound change, one that will bring about general acknowledgment that damaging the environment is an act of violence against the public and against Israel's landscape and nature in Israel. These deserve protection in their own right, quite apart from their importance to humanity.

Recognition of the gravity of environmental crime must come from the courts, which, according to the studies, rarely sentence offenders to prison and levy fines that are minuscule relative to the range provided by legislation. The lenient sentences are handed out by judges who wax poetic on the importance of the environment and the need to protect the land. It is time to pair these fine speeches with punishments that are sufficiently heavy to serve as a deterrent - so that Israel can indeed be a country that is fit for human habitation.