Conservationists in Final Push to Save Wildlife on Site of Former Israeli Arms Plant

The state wants to put housing on a valuable parcel in Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv, but residents are insisting an ecological park be established instead

An animal at Apollonia National Park, in northern Herzliya
Ram Zeevi

It’s not unusual for one-time military installations to become ad hoc nature reserves as a result of a ban on construction on the site. That’s what happened next to Apollonia National Park, the site of a Crusader fortress, in northern Herzliya.

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After an Israel Military Industries factory in the suburb north of Tel Aviv was decommissioned, new residents moved into the area, including gazelles, jackals and foxes as well as myriad smaller animals.

An image of an urban development plant for Apollonia National Park in northern Herzliya
Shiran Carmel

All of this is slated to change, with proposals to build 2,700 housing units in the space. Area residents have been fighting the state’s plans. Together with the Herzliya municipality and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, they seek to turn the site into an ecological park. That would require the consent of the Israel Land Authority and the Finance Ministry’s planning authority, but the state still wants the land used for new housing.

Residential projects were approved two years ago as part of a governmental program to increase the housing supply while reducing prices. Area residents opposed the plans from the start, arguing that it would destroy an important wildlife habitat. They also claim that the soil on the site is contaminated as a result of its past use by Israel Military Industries, and that no comprehensive decontamination has been conducted. 

Residents were parties to a petition to the Tel Aviv District Court seeking to halt the development plans. A year ago, the court ruled that the construction plans should be withdrawn because no environmental risk survey had been carried out. The state has appealed the ruling, and in the meantime residents came up with the idea of creating an ecological park.

An animal at Apollonia National Park, in northern Herzliya
Ram Zeevi

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A similar plan had been proposed in the past in Jerusalem at the initiative of area residents and there it resulted in the creation of the urban Gazelle Valley park.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel conducted a survey at the Herzliya site that found 30 endangered species of plants and animals in the vicinity of Apollonia. The plan for the ecology park calls for as little human intervention as possible at the site but does propose a visitors center as well as hiking trails in areas that are not polluted.

An animal at Apollonia National Park, in northern Herzliya
Ram Zeevi

Future plans may also provide for advanced technology to clean up some of the pollution, although some of the pollutants may not be treated, in the expectation that they would break down gradually.

One of those advocating on behalf of the ecology park is Dror Ben-Ami, an ecologist who lives in Herzliya’s Nof Yam neighborhood, which is adjacent to the site in question. “We need to preserve spaces with ecological value near cities in Israel,” he said. “This is a site with wonderful nature and with varied habitats that are disappearing, including red loam areas [soil composed of sand, silt and clay] and the most beautiful kurkar cliff in Israel. The site could also be a place where it could be possible to educate large numbers of members of the public on the preservation of nature.”

Herzliya Mayor Moshe Fadlon said the park is designed to protect the varied range of plant and animal life there. “We need to maintain a balance between growth in the city and the ecology. We are working vis-a-vis the government to establish the park and have already decided that, as of the next school year, there will be visits for students in the area designated to be a park.” The city is taking the stance that housing can be built elsewhere in the city, including housing built through urban renewal plans.

The Finance Ministry planning authority staff refused to comment on the Herzliya municipality’s proposal. At this point, the state is hoping that the court will find in its favor and allow plans for housing to go ahead.

“We will have to convince the Israel Land Authority to support the [alternative] plan,” said Ben-Ami, the ecologist.

“Although the land does belong to the state and is worth a lot of money, it also belongs to the citizens. It needs to be preserved and not built on,” he added.