The Israeli Military Turns to Nature Protection

Having accepted responsibility for environmental damage, the IDF - aided by private donations - is cleaning up its act.

Courtesy of Havat Hashomer base

Israel Defense Forces tanks and all-terrain vehicles routinely trample over nature reserves, and sewage from its bases pollutes the environment. Its units often cause the largest wildfires in Israel during combat operations and its abandoned bases often become refuse dumps. However, beginning this year, the IDF will have an opportunity to reduce its negative impact on the environment.

In 10 days the IDF, together with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, will launch a project called “Nature Defense Forces.” Several military units will conduct drives to protect nature in the areas in which they operate.

However, even though the army has enlisted in the efforts to protect nature, the funds will not come out of its own coffers, but rather from private donations. The main source is NIS 10 million ($2.89 million), spread over 10 years, donated by Rachel and Moshe Yanai to the Hoopoe Foundation which is devoted to the protection of nature. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority will also take part in the army’s activities.

Dozens of proposed projects were submitted by various military units to a judging panel, which selected nine such proposals, spanning the country from Mount Hermon to Eilat.

“It’s true that the army is legally committed to protecting the environment, in coordination with the INPA, but we know that without the commitment of commanding officers nothing happens in practise”, says Prof. Yossi Leshem of Tel Aviv University, one of the project’s initiators and a member of the SPNI. “This projects involves personal commitment by commanders, and public exposure is expected to arouse the interest of other commanders as well.”

SPNI official Yaakov Shaharabani says that the veteran environmental NGO considers the IDF to be one more community in Israeli society with which they want to collaborate.

The army commanders’ work is cut out for them. According to the Environmental Protection Ministry the army is one of the country’s greatest polluters, and many of its bases have not yet been connected to sewage treatment plants. The IDF was also responsible for asbestos pollution in bases it abandoned.

The most recent state comptroller’s report states that the army has not cleaned up the soil contamination at the air base it dismantled near Ben-Gurion Airport. The army is also placing obstacles in the way of the implementation of environmental regulations in the territories, since these call for sewage treatment at military bases.

Nevertheless, in recent years the IDF has started implementing plans to hook up to sewage treatment at its bases, and has removed some of the more dangerous asbestos stockpiles. As part of the new project the army undertakes to contend with the sewage runoff at the Mount Hermon installations, which are located at some of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the country.

Although the army signed an agreement with the INPA 20 years ago committing to coordinating its activities within nature reserves with the authority, it occasionally causes severe damage to nature during its maneuvers. Preventable damage, according to environmental activists, was done in the hills of the Lachish area, in which serious wildfires have broken out in recent years in areas covered by trees and wild bushes.

The commanding team at the training base in this area will be responsible for the project in the coming years. This area contains several nature reserves as well as one of the highest concentrations of birds of prey. They will act to increase awareness and preparedness in order to prevent fires, as well as making some of the reserves accessible to civilians during holiday periods.

A senior nature protection official says that increased awareness is important, but that real changes will come only after the army invests in fire-fighting equipment, as well as severely punishing officers who cause fires through neglect.

Paradoxically, the IDF’s presence sometimes serves to protect nature. Thus, the air bases at Palmahim and Hatzerim help protect the sand dunes and the loess plains in the area, which have almost disappeared. At the Palmahim base soldiers are already uprooting some invading plants, together with the SPNI. Under the new plan, a major cleanup will take place, as well as removal of stray dogs and cats that are killing off much of the wildlife. At the Hatzerim base much of the effort will be directed at preserving the loess soil plains, home to many rare reptiles and mammals, as well as an endangered bird, the chlamydotis (a type of buzzard). Hazards in the area will be removed.

Along the Egyptian border, members of the Caracal Battalion will assist INPA personnel in supervising several passages constructed along the border fence for wildlife in the area. The fence, intended to stop infiltrators and asylum seekers from crossing, also blocks the movement of larger wild animals. The army agreed to the construction of dozens of passages for these animals by the INPA.

The new project will have sufficient funds to enable the purchase of cameras which will track the movement of these animals. “So far, a pilot project has observed the movement of foxes, jackals, rabbits and porcupines,” says Asaf Tzoer, the INNA’s southern branch ecologist. “The Caracal soldiers will help us distribute more cameras and in track their footprints, if necessary.”

The new project poses a complex challenge to the SPNI, which will have to collaborate with a state body, the IDF, which it usually criticizes, in a project that will improve the IDF’s public image. This will make it more difficult to criticize issues that still need attention.

“We are always supported by state funds and that has never stopped our criticism,” says Shaharabani. “This project will increase our exposure to military activity.”

Leshem stresses that the money does not come from army budgets and is designated only for the selected projects. Military commanders know that they will still be severely criticized for damaging nature in the future, he adds.

Alon Ron