The Mysterious Nature Reserve Israel Doesn't Want You to Know About

No one is allowed to visit this huge natural treasure which is home to dozens of rare species of plants and trees. An intrepid Haaretz writer tried to get a peek at the big mystery in the center of Israel

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An aerial view of the hidden reserve, situated between four local authorities/councils: Ramat Hasharon, Herzliya, Hod Hasharon and Darom Hasharon.
An aerial view of the hidden reserve, situated between four local authorities/councils.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

The preparations went on for years. Every drive along Highway 4 to Ra’anana afforded quick glimpses of the fortress-like compound. Every visit to friends in Herzliya included vital intelligence-gathering about fences, barricades and observation points. I tried not to look straight into the security cameras affixed to the electricity poles there. On other days, as I walked alongside the fence that surrounds the Israel Military Industries (aka IMI, or Taas, its Hebrew acronym) complex, in the Sharon region of central Israel, I wore a wide-brimmed hat – perfect for someone on a secret mission to crack the big mystery in the heart of the country.

Curiosity pushed me to try to figure out what was inside this large, closed-off area. Think of science-fiction novels in which there is some mysterious structure, where the goings-on are not known to anyone except for some super-secretive officials. The rumors will describe dense forests and toxic substances, flowers and animals and areas that are strictly off-limits. “Roadside Picnic,” by the Russian Strugatsky brothers (a splendid book), comes to mind. The hero, Redrick “Red” Schuhart, infiltrates a closed “visitation zone” where natural phenomena occur that are unfamiliar and sometimes even dangerous to humans, in which he finds objects with supernatural qualities.

There was one moment, eight years ago, when I understood that this was a most vital mission. I was meeting with Israel Prize laureate Azaria Alon, co-founder of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and a leading environmentalist, in his home on Kibbutz Beit Hashita up north. When I asked him what was the most important environmental challenge facing the country, Alon answered right away: “Preserving the IMI complex between Ramat Hasharon and Hod Hasharon, and turning it into a green park in the heart of the country. No other objective is as important for those who love and want to preserve nature in Israel. There should be no construction there.”

An aerial virew of residential buildings next to the closed area, in Ramat Hasharon, Israel.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Alon, who was 93 at the time (and passed away three months after our conversation), listed three other, less important struggles that he was involved in at the time: against construction of an airport near Megiddo, in the Jezreel Valley; against the building of a hotel in the Sasgon Valley, down south, near Timna; and the fight to preserve the Mediterranean coastline between Tel Baruch and Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv.

IMI’s Sharon premises house an arms, ammunition and munitions manufacturing plant, which are due to move to the Negev in the coming years. The compound covers an area of 7,500 dunams (roughly 1,900 acres) and takes the shape of an odd-shaped “island” that no one but employees may come near. The island is situated between four local authorities/councils: Ramat Hasharon, Herzliya, Hod Hasharon and Darom Hasharon.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the size of this area. For comparison’s sake, the city of Ra’anana covers 14,000 dunams – so, the IMI island is over half of that. Ra’anana is home to 75,000 people. If the current development plans (which were approved in January by the district planning authorities) are carried out, after the plant is moved to the Negev, 36,000 apartments (for 140,000 people) will be built on the site. Which means that twice the population of Ra’anana will live in a space that is half the size. The city of Herzliya, which abuts IMI, is spread over 25,000 dunams, nearly four times the area of the site – and it has a population of 100,000.

Endemic species

Attorney Yisrael Caspi, who has been active for nine years in RIBA (the Hebrew acronym for Green Lung in IMI Hasharon), explained in a lengthy conversation that within the military industry’s closed compound there are tens of thousands of trees that are at least 60 years old. In addition there are other unique and rare plants and flowers, as well as many animals and beautiful landscapes. Caspi and his nonprofit are now spearheading the fight against the massive building plans for the site, together with SPNI and Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense).

“This is a space that has no parallel or alternative throughout the Gush Dan and southern Sharon area, and the largest green lung on the coastal plain between Hadera to Gedera,” Caspit explains passionately.

RIBA has one clear demand: to have the entire area declared a huge, green metropolitan park, and to revoke the construction plans that would destroy it. The three local authorities that border the site – Herzliya, Hod Hasharon and Ramat Hasharon – support the NGO’s demands; their mayors have already announced that they are not interested in building on the areas that will be evacuated.

Herzliya homes located near the sealed off nature reserve, seen from the air.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“Preserving the site as a green lung will enable coming generations to make an educated decision about the future of the area, while massive building on it today would constitute an irreversible step,” Caspi says. “We call on the government to open up part of IMI’s forested area to a visit by the media, so the public can see the powerful natural beauty of the site’s green areas, which have been hidden from public view since the country’s founding, and also to operate with full transparency regarding all the information about the area, including data vis-a-vis pollution of the ground – the most polluted land in the country.”

Caspi showed me a professional opinion written by Prof. Avi Shmida, one of Israel’s leading botanists, which stated that the IMI compound is a crucial part of "the ecosystem of the coastal plain in the southern Sharon area, which encompasses unique habitats as well as dozens of plants that are either exclusive or endemic to the coastal plain area, and endangered species.”

Shmida elaborated, explaining that the area contains 171 plant species, 88 of which are considered to be exclusive (meaning, confined almost completely to a certain area), 27 are legally protected, 91 are endangered species and two are endemic to Israel. “I wholeheartedly recommend that the site be preserved and turned into a major nature park in the southern Sharon area, that will display the vistas and habitats and special vegetation of the region,” Shmida wrote.

The current situation is as follows: In January, the Central District Planning Committee approved the Kidmat Hasharon (Sharon Progress) plan that calls for construction on the site after the IMI departs. The Israel Lands Administration originated the plan. It intends to finance the decontamination of the ground that's been polluted by the military industry by marketing the area to residential building contractors.

Herzliya, Hod Hasharon and Ramat Hasharon appealed the decision in Tel Aviv District Court. At the hearing on their petition, jointly submitted with a number of environmental organizations, it was determined that a new version of the plan was to be submitted. The planning committee approved that plan with minor changes that do not substantially change either the scope of the construction or the amount of territory involved. It will be presented again to the court before more detailed work can begin.

A flower field of European Yellow Lupine, inside the closed nature reserve in the IMI compound, central Israel. Credit: Dr. Ron Frumkin

According to the updated blueprints, after the planned construction, about half of the area will remain as open space.

“This will include parks covering hundreds of dunams, where clusters of trees and grassy areas can be preserved,” says Uri Mazor of the firm Mazor-First Architects & City Planners, which prepared the plan for the lands administration. Adam Teva V’Din and SPNI have called for larger wild areas to be left untouched, and for ensuring contiguous protected, natural spaces. They claim that the latest version of the plan does not allow for sufficient preservation of nature or of open spaces at the site.

Earlier last month, there was another development: The large-scale construction plan for Apollonia on the western side of Herzliya was sent back to the planning committees by the Supreme Court. The bench accepted the position presented by Adam Teva V’Din, the Herzliya Municipality and local residents that the data relating to pollution at that site required further study. This decision could also have an influence on the examination of the pollution at the IMI site.

Fraught forays

I contacted the Defense Ministry to request permission to visit the closed compound. They referred me to the Netzer Hasharon firm (a governmental-security company that specializes in the rehabilitation of sites where security industries once operated). I repeated my request to tour the site. Two days later, a company representative phoned and said that my request would be answered within a few days, but I could forget about bringing a photographer along. I thanked him and set out that same day on my own tour around the perimeter.

Over the course of several days, I circled the site. I walked along lengthy segments of the 3-meter-high fence and drove along others. Mainly I wanted to look inside, to see what we stand to lose.

An aerial view of the hidden reserve, situated between four local authorities/councils.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It’s a tough mission since the site is protected like a fortress; the fence is topped with sensors and cameras. I couldn’t find a single small breach in it. I don’t know how many security cameras tracked my journey, or even noticed me. No one came out to speak with me.

At one point, near a partially open gate in Herzliya, next to Yerushalayim Street, I tried to peek inside. A moment later, a female soldier in uniform came striding toward me. I retreated and waved hello. I did not take any photographs – obeying the countless signs warning against it.

I began by walking northward all along Hanetzach Street in Ramat Hasharon. On the outside of this stretch of fence is a new amusement park. Looming over the other side, I spotted numerous towering eucalyptus trees, an image engraved in my memory. There are thousands of those trees in the IMI compound. They look wonderful, soaring to heights of dozens of meters. I also saw carob, oak, cypress and palm trees, and lots of acacias. Here and there I spotted some buildings. This part of the site is about two kilometers wide and the eucalyptuses block the field of vision a short distance from the fence. So it’s hard to say whether this is a sparse eucalyptus grove or a thick Australian forest.

Prof. Yoram Yom-Tov of Tel Aviv University.Credit: Meged Gozny

From Hanetzach Street, I continued north alongside to Yarmouk Street, Shiloah Street and then back to Hanetzach. The easternmost row of houses in the residential neighborhood here is right across from the fence; there are many attractive villas with spacious yards. Proximity to the mystery zone and the rumors about ground pollution don’t seem to be bothering these folks. Indeed, the most striking thing to me is people’s capacity to ignore what goes on past their yards. Each villa has a garden full of flowers and grass, a trampoline for the kids and some garden gnomes. But two meters to the east stands an electrified fence, heralding a fortified compound that looks like a military installation with security vehicles on patrol. No one wonders how this can be. I guess you can get used to anything.

From the northern end of Hanetzach Street I crossed into Herzliya. At first I walked down Ya’ara Street, which turned into Pesah Yifhar Street, and then I came to Derekh Yerushalayim which abuts IMI. There I found a whole area that looks like it came right out of a science-fiction novel – a kind of no-man’s land nestled between the fence and the houses, with a deserted dirt road, discarded construction materials and rusted, flattened fencing. I turned east, to Pinkas Street, to Gil Street and to Leil Hagesharim Street. This is the northern boundary of the site.

At the northeastern corner, at the end of Leil Hagesharim, there is a nice public park. I sat down to rest. From here the IMI fence takes a sharp turn south; opposite is a pretty plant nursery with ornamental plants and fruit trees. I had reached a dead end. It was impossible to go any further.

I gave up and drove south on Highway 4 to the Neve Hadar cemetery in Hod Hasharon. This is an unusual part of the city, which is situated west of the highway. Surrounding the cemetery is agricultural land, and the fence continues somewhat more to the west there. According to my map there's supposed to be a cemetery for Turkish soldiers there. In any case, among the cypresses I found there were beehives full of bees.

Ramat Hasharon. Herzliya, Hod Hasharon and Ramat Hasharon appealed the decision in Tel Aviv District Court. Credit: Eyal Toueg

I returned to Hod Hasharon and drove to the Morasha neighborhood in Ramat Hasharon, where I walked east from the Oranim elementary school. Here too, nobody seems to have any problem with the proximity of the school to a secret bunch of buildings where people develop and manufacture explosives. That day missiles fired from the Gaza Strip landed a few kilometers south of there.

I walked down Shavei Zion Street, kept going and stopped at the dead end of Simtat Hameshi. An excellent IMI observation spot. The fence is somewhat less dense here and there’s an excellent view of eucalyptus groves. But shortly afterward I realized that the best observation post was somewhat further on – three entirely new residential buildings on Hativat Alexandroni Street, Nos. 8, 10 and 12. Each soars to a height of eight stories and they are located adjacent to the fence.

For a moment I thought of asking one of the young mothers in the park to invite me to take a glance from the top floor, but I gave up on that idea. I imagined how the forest inside looks from the heights of the building, and went to the nearby grocery store to buy a cold drink.

Citrus tree tale

Prof. Yoram Yom-Tov of Tel Aviv University is one of the country's outstanding zoologists. He lives not far from the IMI site, and 26 years ago, almost prophetically, he wrote an article in Haaretz together with botanist Prof. Dan Eisikowitch, in which the two proposed building a big park in place of the weapons plant.

“I’ve lived there since 1974,” he told me recently. “One day I saw that a citrus tree I planted in the backyard was producing yellowish leaves. They explained to me that there’s ground pollution. They said that all the details are secret. Shortly afterward Ramat Hasharon stopped using the local water wells and got hooked up to Mekorot (national water company) sources. The tree survived and is still standing. Since then a professional firm has examined the ground pollution. It comes from substances used to prepare explosives for missiles.

The entrance to the Israel Military Industries (aka IMI, or Taas, its Hebrew acronym) compound in Ramat Hasharon. Credit: Tomer Applebaum

"IMI dug wells in the compound and for years poured polluting substances, some quite toxic, into them. They remain there to this day. The worst pollution, to the best of my knowledge, is at the southern wall of the complex, next to the Oranim school. But it’s deep inside, in the groundwater. As long as it isn’t touched there’s apparently no problem. Anyone with a cellar is at risk that the vapors from the substances will accumulate there. It’s a genuine danger.

“These are very problematic substances if you want to build a neighborhood. If they build a park, that’s less problematic. People don’t stay in a park all the time. The substances in the ground don’t rise to the surface on their own. They well up if you everything that’s above them is dampened. If 10 centimeters are covered with greenery the risk is low."

In the past, Yom-Tov continued, "they carried out feasibility tests for removing the soil and reached the conclusion that there was no financial or technical possibility of clearing away such a quantity of it. It isn’t feasible to build neighborhoods there without there being pollution, but it’s worth remembering that the area is not uniformly polluted.

“By selling this huge area they will pay for the transfer of the IMI plant to the Negev and the building of a park. There’s no question – we cannot put the people who will live there at risk. The salient fact is that the mayors don’t want this area either. And we still haven’t discussed the question of how the future residents will go out to work in the morning. There’s no possibility of adding cars without causing a tremendous traffic jam. There’s no possibility of connecting this area to a highway exit in a way that won’t cause greater overcrowding on roads that are already overcrowded.”

When asked what will ultimately be built in the IMI area, attorney Caspi answers simply: “A park with a forest with 70,000 trees. With the entire area being preserved as a natural expanse; maybe it will be declared a nature reserve. It will be like the Ben Shemen Forest, or the Menashe Forest. We could also have a Bois de Boulogne, like in Paris.”

An interesting comparison. The Bois de Boulogne is a public park at the western edge of the 16th arrondissement in the French capital. Napoleon II built it 170 years ago. It covers an area of 8,500 dunams, slightly larger than IMI's compound. There too the real estate temptation was great. The question now is whether in Israel there’s anyone parallel to Napoleon III.

As of this moment I haven’t yet heard from a representative of Netzer Hasharon regarding a proper visit to the site.

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