The number of natural springs in Israel has, surprisingly, been growing rapidly. Hundreds of springs have been rehabilitated in recent years, and some have acquired pools that they never had before. Others now have places to sit and paths leading to them. And all attract large, enthusiastic crowds.
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But this ostensibly positive development has some serious downsides. At Ein Tayasim in the Jerusalem corridor, for instance, it’s been years since one could find the pool empty, and the crowds haven’t benefited the site. The tranquility is gone, and it’s sometimes very dirty.
At Ein Reihaniya in the Galilee, there’s an even more serious problem: It’s in the middle of a nature reserve, and swimming in the lovely pool is forbidden because it harms the pool and the local fauna and flora. But the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has been waging a losing battle to keep visitors, sometimes hundreds per day, from entering the water.
One reason why so many springs have been rehabilitated is that this has become a popular way to memorialize loved ones who died or were killed. The intentions, of course, are good: Families and friends rehabilitate a spring and then name it after their loved one. But the result isn’t always good for the environment.
One notable example led to conflict this May between nature authority inspectors and relatives of Gavriel Hoter, who was killed in a terror attack. The family had set up a memorial area for Hoter in the Ein Jawiza nature reserve in the Golan Heights, including a pool that collected natural spring water. The inspectors said the pool’s walls prevented animals from drinking the water, so they destroyed it.
There is also a political aspect to these rehabilitation efforts. Control over water sources has always been part of the battle for control over the land, and even the smallest springs are part of this process. Many springs once served Arab villages and still have Arab names. Developing them, changing the name and bringing in visitors are ways of demonstrating control over these sites.
Yaakov Skolnik, an expert on the land of Israel who has written several guidebooks, cites two other problems. First, he says, many springs already have three names – the Arab name, the Israeli name and the name of a person being memorialized. “We’re forgetting that the spring’s name has historical and geographic significance,” he says. “This shows disrespect for nature and heritage.”
The second problem is hygiene. “Everyone wants to sit in these tiny pools, but in my view this is life-threatening. The water in these small springs gets replaced very slowly, the number of bathers is large and this situation doesn’t contribute to anyone’s health.”
The most prominent organization involved in rehabilitating springs is a semi-underground group that calls itself Abarbanel. Data shows that Abarbanel has been involved with dozens of springs, perhaps more than 100, in numerous parts of the country – the Golan Heights, the Carmel, the Jerusalem Hills, the Galilee and of course the West Bank. That’s a huge number for a small, dry country. The group’s trademark is introducing goldfish to the springs – something that makes ecologists shudder.
When asked where the group gets its money, Ilan Bronson, one of Abarbanel’s leading figures, says that all its members contribute. “You’d be surprised, but it doesn’t cost much,” he says.
Other people I spoke with think Abarbanel receives help from political groups. Bronson denies this. “Everything is completely apolitical,” he says. “We’re all fanatics, I already told you that. What we do is from love of nature.”
According to Yaron Rosenthal, director of the Kfar Etzion Field School, after 1948 about 100 springs in the Jerusalem area were abandoned, and many dried up. But in the 1990s a turnaround began. “Since I was a boy, the number of springs in the Jerusalem area has quadrupled,” he says. “The reason is simple: Access to all parts of the land has increased, people’s consciousness of hiking sites has risen, and springs have been rehabilitated, some by private initiatives and others institutionally [by the nature authority or Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael].” Lately, local governments have also gotten involved, he adds.
But not everyone is happy with this trend – especially not green organizations. A recent report by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel said that often, pools are built directly over the wellspring, meaning there is no longer any natural flow from it. This seriously damages the ecosystem and destroys many ecological niches.
Dozens of springs throughout the country have undergone renovation, the report said, but the problem “is particularly severe in the Jerusalem Hills, where there are virtually no springs left that human hands haven’t touched. In some cases, the spring’s environment has been changed aggressively to adapt it to its new function [i.e. recreation and swimming].” Often, however, these springs are neglected again after being renovated and become filled with trash, the report added.
According to Dr. Orit Skutelsky of SPNI, many species of flora and fauna living in the springs are in danger of extinction, and if something isn’t done to stop the rehabilitation projects many will not survive. The top priority, she says, is to protect the wellsprings and keep tourism away from them. To meet the demand from hikers, she suggests creating pools further downstream, at a distance from the wellspring.
David Weiner, director of the Carmel region for the nature authority, describes keeping visitors away from the Ein Reihaniya spring as a Sisyphean task. A large sign says swimming is forbidden, but many people swim there anyway when authority inspectors are not present. Whenever people enter the spring and tread on the mud at the bottom, he says, it turns the water murky and causes great damage to flora and fauna. Moreover, the pool now contains tilapia – an invasive species of fish that someone put there for unknown reasons.
Aside from the ecological damage, Weiner says, there is also a safety issue. “We can’t put a lifeguard at every pool, and therefore swimming is forbidden.” He also complains bitterly that many guidebooks don’t tell their readers that swimming is forbidden at Ein Reihaniya. The nature authority could block access to Ein Reihaniya and other springs, Weiner says, but it does not want to do that. “We want people to enjoy the spring, but for many reasons, we forbid swimming in it. We want to preserve nature for the public, not from the public. But if we don’t supervise here, within a few years the spring will be destroyed.”