Who Will Protect Them?

It is the first war between Israel and its neighbors in which it has become evident just how closely environmental problems and security are related.

Of all countries, Israel has made a special effort in recent years to protect Mediterranean sea turtles, which are under constant threat of extinction, and yet in this latest war it bombed a petroleum reserve on the Lebanese coast, causing terrible pollution that now threatens the turtles that are supposed to migrate to the Lebanese coast to lay their eggs. The turtles are only an example of the far-reaching environmental ramifications of the war. It is the first war between Israel and its neighbors in which it has become evident just how closely environmental problems and security are related.

Dozens of kilometers of Lebanese coastline were severely polluted in the wake of the bombing of the fuel depot, and damage was caused to forests and woodlands in southern Lebanon as a result of the bombing. In Israel, large areas of forest and woodland were burned by Katyushas that landed in the Galilee. In Haifa, the residents lived with the anxiety that rockets fired at the city would hit reserves of dangerous materials and cause a mass disaster.

The intensity of the environmental damage created unusual cooperation between green groups. For the first time in the history of the region, a statement was issued and signed by representatives of green organizations in Beirut and Tel Aviv (Friends of the Earth, Middle East). The statement called on the United Nations to send a team of experts to assess environmental damage to the area and to examine the environmental ramifications of the war.

The environmental message of the war should be identical to the humanitarian one. When an armed conflict is raging, the combatants must avoid harming environmental resources or facilities that could damage the environment, just as they avoid harming the civilian population. Katyushas are not to be aimed at containers of hazardous chemicals, and fuel depots on the coastline should not be attacked when it is obvious they will pollute the sea.

In the case of Lebanon and Israel, such an approach has a decisive importance since these are two small abutting countries with very few natural resources. Those resources are crucial for the existence of various economic sectors, starting with tourism. In both countries, urban areas on the coastline are expanding and creating a nearly contiguous strip of construction, from Gaza in the south to Tripoli in the north. There is enormous pressure for development in those areas and there are many energy and infrastructure facilities that are close to the sea and residential areas.

In Lebanon and Israel there are environmental protection projects that face identical problems. In Israel, there is an attempt to preserve the sand dunes at Nitzanim and in Lebanon a similar project has been created near Tyre. Both countries share a common source of fresh water, the Hatzbani River. Regrettably, the two countries did not demonstrate cooperation when it comes to protecting the environment, but both are committed to the protection of the Mediterranean Sea and its coastline, as part of international agreements they have signed. Those agreements require prevention of pollution that harms neighboring countries.

What's true with regard to Lebanon holds true for the Palestinian Authority. Israel is conducting a political and military campaign against Hamas. Through cooperation with donor countries to the PA it made sure that money earmarked for many projects is not reaching the region. The environment is one of the victims of this policy. Halting the construction of sewage purification projects and preventing trash collection in the territories harms both peoples who use the same land and same aquifer.

As green groups such as Friends of the Earth and local authorities such as the Emek Hefer Council have noted lately, it is possible to cooperate directly with local authorities over the Green Line, subsidizing them so they can take action to protect the vital interests of both nations. Pollution of the aquifer from sewage and trash that pollutes the landscape does not recognize borders and there is no choice but to deal with the problems jointly.