Opinion |

The Israeli Army Has Enough Enemies. Nature Shouldn't Be One of Them

Zafrir Rinat
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IDF soldiers in Mount Hermon, January 21, 2019.
IDF soldiers in Mount Hermon, January 21, 2019.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Zafrir Rinat

Mount Hermon is designated a nature reserve, but there are reasons to doubt that status given the human activity of recent years, which has been seriously undermining the area’s unique ecosystem. The primary issues are the military training and roadbuilding, the cattle grazing and the apiaries, which threaten the flora and fauna of the reserve.

The numerous herds of cattle on the mountain also move about in the nature reserve. This activity has already turned a natural pool into a watering hole for the cattle that smells and could lead to overgrowth of thorny plants, which the cows don’t eat, and the suppression of local plants. Grazing within a nature reserve, if it’s to be allowed, must be done with extra caution, because these reserves generally provide the last refuge for various wild animals and plants.

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The Hermon is a region with a composition of plants and animal species unique to Israel due to the climatic conditions and its geographical location. In has around 1,275 plant species (the largest variety in the country), dozens of butterfly species and rare mammals, like the snow vole, and 17 species of birds will breed only there.

In addition to the cattle grazing, there are many honeybee hives in the area of the ski resort. Israel also has around 1,000 species of bees that don’t make honey, and their importance in pollinating wildflowers is generally greater than that of honeybees.

According to Dr. Achik Dorchin of the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University, many studies have shown that honeybee grazing may have a negative impact on bee populations by exhausting the nectar and pollen, which flowers produce in limited quantities. He notes that an apiary with 48 hives was found during a survey of wild bees on the Hermon last year. At the peak of activity, each hive contains around 60,000 worker bees – a total of 2,880,000 worker bees, far more than the total number of natural pollinators that may be found at a given site at one time.

According to Dorchin’s calculations, such an apiary will use up 480 kilograms of wildflower pollen over three months, enough to produce more than 5 million wild bees. The density of the hives in the Hermon Reserve has risen sharply because the honey produced on Mount Hermon, thought to strengthen virility, fetches an especially high price. Dorchin stresses that these hives are not providing a service to nature; the natural pollinators meet the pollination needs of the area’s wildflowers, and the honeybees are causing significant harm to these pollinators. Damage is also likely to be done to some of the wildflowers since worker bees collect large quantities of pollen for food while contributing little to pollinating and fertilizing the plants.

Most of the burden of protecting the future of the Hermon’s ecosystems rests with the Israel Defense Forces, which is essentially responsible for most of the territory. But the army itself has turned into the real threat to nature. A few weeks ago the reserve was heavily damaged by a fire that broke out during a training exercise.

One can learn about the military’s affect on the reserve from a request by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel to Defense Minister Benny Gantz last week. The organization noted that the IDF was planning a road that would cause serious damage to the Sion Stream that runs through the heart of the reserve. The road was to be built before the completion of the Special Planning Committee for Security Installations’ planning process. The SPNI insisted that the army uphold its commitment to the required planning process.

The IDF Spokesman said in response, “The army works at all times to improve the readiness and defense of the north’s residents. All the infrastructures planned are carried out in coordination and with the cooperation of all the relevant agencies, taking many factors into account. The army sees great importance in preserving nature and does everything it can to limit the damage to the environment despite operational needs. We will not elaborate on the operational activity near the border. The route in question is in a military area used for operational purposes.”

But the reality is that the IDF coordinates at times and in ways that are convenient for it, without sufficient concern for nature. For the reserve to be worthy of its name, the army must change its approach. At the same time, care must be taken to supervise and control the grazing activity and create a buffer between the honeybee hives and the natural areas. If that doesn’t happen, Dorchin may be correct in his suggestion that the area be renamed the “cattle and apiary reserve” to reflect the reality on the ground.