Israel Losing Too Much Open Spaces to Construction, Scientists Say

Environmental scientists calculate that at the current rate Israel can expect to lose 0.5 percent of open space in the next decade.

An aerial view of Rishon Letzion.
Ofer Vaknin

Built-up areas cover nearly a fifth of the land north of Beer Sheva, and the extent of construction is causing the loss of half a percentage point of open spaces per decade, a report by environmental scientists said.

Coauthored by biologist Michal Sorek and Prof. Avi Perevolotsky, the report was issued on behalf of by Maarag – Israel’s National Nature Assessment Program, a joint operation of organizations responsible for natural resource management in Israel and independent scientists. It summed up two years of data and research, based on plant and animal specimens collected at 76 monitoring stations, as well as satellite imagery. The scientists used the data to analyze natural land and the state of plant growth, dividing the country into nine ecological zones.

Maarag is a joint operation of the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and Keren Kayemeth L’Israel, and operates under the auspices of the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History.

The data shows that in 2016 11 percent of Israel was built up, covering 18 percent north of Be’er Sheva. Built-up areas make up 25 percent of natural land where Mediterranean thickets also exist.

Aerial view of western Rishon Letzion in 2012.
Ofer Vaknin

The scientists calculate that at the current rate Israel can expect to lose another 0.5 percent of open space in the next decade.

“It is reasonable to assume that this open land will be built up in the center and northern region,” Sorek said.

Reducing natural areas in Israel is tied not only to the sum total of open space but also to the widespread distribution of development and construction centers.

“Nature in Israel is turning into a tapestry of little spots cut off by construction,” Sorek said. “Every such spot has less opportunity for animals and reproduction, for searching for food or escaping predators.”

Data analysis shows how the influence of settlements changes nature. There are species of birds and mammals like foxes, cats, sparrows and pigeons living next to settled areas. In contrast, many species were pushed out of natural areas after they became built up or were farmed. One of the species most impacted by settlement is the deer, which have been pushed to natural areas far from the spread of the build-up. The coyote is also mostly found far from populated areas.

Some natural areas were severely damaged in recent years, largely due to recurring fires caused by army activity in training areas, mainly in the Golan Heights and the Lakhish hills, the report suggests. A comprehensive survey of the Givot hills, recently completed by the Dasha Institute, concluded that fires caused by the army have greatly shaped the landscape in recent years.

The pressures on nature are also severe in the Negev, despite the more restricted construction in this area. Agriculture and forest planting by Keren Kayemeth have had a negative impact in the northern Negev. For example, there is almost no trace of the Be’er Sheva lizard genus Acanthodactylus in these areas, an endangered species unique to Israel.

Animals in the Arava, similar to the center of the country, rely on food sources in areas that have gone agricultural. Desert species of birds like the desert lark and the black tail have been pushed out of these areas. They are forced to suffice with shrinking natural spaces.

Trees have maintained stability in most areas, however, and there has even been an increase in the scope of certain plants, the report found.

“It seems that plants in Israel are more resilient to phenomena of climate change,” Perevolotsky said.

Another finding contradicts earlier assessments by conservationists that pine forests are ecological deserts because their density prevents the development of other plants. In recent years, it turns out that other plant types are in fact growing beneath the pine trees.