Reversing Decades-old Policy, Israel to Allow Some Harvesting of Wild Herbs

Decision follows complaints by Arabs who gather hyssop for za'atar and Greek sage

A woman harvests gundelia in northern Israel, March 19, 2019.
Eyal Toueg

The Nature and Parks Authority will be changing its policy to allow people to cut certain protected wild herbs in small quantities for personal use, and focus instead on enforcement against those collecting these herbs in commercial quantities.

The landmark decision came in response to complaints from Arabs and Druze about being forbidden to gather certain herbs like hyssop and Greek sage. According to the authority’s director, Shaul Goldstein, with a few months there will be a revision of the enforcement policy. Similarly the gundelia (akkoub) plant will be permitted to be harvested in unlimited quantities in certain areas.

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Both hyssop – from which za’atar is made – and sage are widely grown in Israel by both farmers and in private gardens, but there are those who prefer to cut them in the wild, claiming that the herbs in nature are of better quality and have a different taste.

Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights, had contacted Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin to ask that the policy be changed to allow harvesting for personal use so that traditional foods could continue to be prepared with these herbs. According to data issued by the parks authority in response to Adalah’s request, between 2016 and 2018 there were 26 indictments filed for harvesting and trade violations and for illegal possession of herbs, and 151 fines were imposed. Almost all the incidents involved the cutting of gundelia and hyssop.

Harvesting gundelia in the Galilee, March 19, 2008.
Eyal Toueg

The parks authority reevaluated its policy and concluded that gundelia is not a plant at risk in all areas, which is why it is considering allowing it to be harvested freely in some places. “In the Lachish region I saw dozens of people cutting gundelia,” said Goldstein. “They were cutting in a manner that didn’t destroy the plants.” As for hyssop and sage, the authority still believes these plants are at risk, so it will allow limited harvesting for personal use. It hasn’t yet determined what quantity will be permitted.

Rabea Eghbariah, a lawyer for Adalah, welcomed the pending decision, saying the authority realized that the enforcement policy had been excessive. “No firm professional evidence has been presented to us indicating that harvesting these plants without pulling them from the root significantly endangers their proliferation in the wild and justifies the imposition of a criminal ban on picking them,” he said in a statement. “After hundreds of people, nearly all of them Palestinians-Arabs, were harmed by the overbearing and humiliating enforcement, the time has come to end the criminalization of herb-picking culture and to establish that harvesting these plants is not an offense, certainly when dealing with quantities for personal use.”