Earthworks Damage Rare Israeli Natural Treasures on Iris Hill

'The most serious incident we have seen in years,' says Society for the Protection of Nature, of work at site near Rishon Letzion. City vows to issue stop-work order.

Moshe Gilad

Earthworks have caused great damage to Iris Hill, one of the most important nature sites remaining in the center of the country. Over the past few weeks, major construction work has been done on the hill, south of Rishon Letzion, damaging one of the biggest concentrations in Israel of the indigenous, rare and endangered Coastal (or Dark-purple) Iris.

The hill, called Givat Ha'Irussim in Hebrew, is located on private land which is zoned for agriculture. The earthworks have seriously damaged the layer of soil in which the flowers grow naturally, and they have been covered by a layer of dirt. Apparently, the bulldozers were brought in by the owners.

In any event, the work has been conducted despite the fact that the Coastal Iris (Iris atropurpurea) is a protected species under the law for the protection of wildflowers, and although the area is intended for preservation as part of the master plan for the central region.

Ahab Becker

The Rishon Letzion municipality said that the work is being done without a permit.

On Sunday, an environmental activist spoke with people at the site, who told him they were the owners of the property. They explained, however, that the work is being conducted at the request of the city to help prevent fires in the area, and also in order to remove garbage that was dumped there illegally.

Despite requests from local residents last week to stop the work, it has continued. In addition, environmental activists and the Society for the Protection of Nature have asked the city to stop the damage being done to the site.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority – the government body entrusted with protecting natural resources – sent an inspector to the hill last weekend to investigate the cause and extent of the damage.

On Sunday the SPNI asked Rishon Mayor Dov Tzur, who is also chairman of the local planning and building committee, to intervene immediately to stop the earthworks, as well as to draw up a plan to rehabilitate the site.

“This is the most serious incident we have seen in years," the SPNI said in a letter to Tzur. "The work has critically damaged protected natural treasures at the site and destroyed dozens of clusters of irises, including hundreds of individual [plants]. In our estimation, about half of the area has been destroyed in this way.”

Local residents were expected to hold a protest march to the site on Monday. In the past, a group called Guardians of the Hills has held similar events to call attention to damage done to the environment. In addition, the city, along with the SPNI, has organized various activities on Iris Hill that are intended to encourage awareness of and preservation of its natural treasures.

The municipality said a city inspector was going to visit the site Monday and would issue a stop-work order, since the work is being conducted without a permit. The land is private property and has not formally been declared a nature preserve, the city added.

“We are working in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority," the municipality said, "to lease the land from its owners until a comprehensive plan to preserve the area is formulated.”

The best-known feature in this particular area, the Dark-purple Iris is unique to Israel and under threat of extinction. Thousands of visitors traditionally visit the site in the spring to see the flowers in bloom.