Creating a Green Oasis

"When I was a student, I always got depressed when I came back to Dimona," says Etti Ben Shimol, 30, of the environmental organization Negev Bar Kayama (Sustainable Negev). "I felt like I was coming to a dreary place with tired people. A person who lives in a poor environment feels poor. He enters a cycle of apathy and inactivity."

Now, says Ben Shimol, things look different in Dimona. The city, which had been stuck with the image of an unsophisticated place, has been undergoing a green revolution in the past year. Compared to other Israeli cities, it is a pioneer in this field.

"The feeling is different," says Ben Shimol. "The environmental changes have had an effect. My husband and I returned to Dimona as part of a group of young college graduates. For many years we wanted to come back and we couldn't. Now I feel I can raise my children here."

Negev Bar Kayama, established in 1998 to improve the environment in the south, is at the forefront of the change. Bilha Givon, who founded the organization, is spearheading the current efforts in Dimona, along with mayor Meir Cohen. Ben Shimol, who has a master's degree in education, is coordinating projects in the local kindergartens and in four elementary schools.

"We built an educational program that promotes environmental awareness, and we integrated the topic in all subjects studied from first through sixth grades," she notes with pride.

Ten other schools have expressed a willingness to join the program. "As awareness increases, so does the demand for green programs," says Cohen. "The concept is to have the dialogue here involve the environment. Today I receive calls from residents at 1 A.M. when they see white smoke billowing from a factory smokestack and think there may be some 'irregular activity' going on there. Before this, when did I receive calls about these kinds of issues?"

In desert mode

Cohen says he is also trying to work with very limited budgets at his disposal. "We replaced all of the asbestos pipes that carried drinking water in the city, even though they could have been used for many more years. The entire landscaping system has switched to desert mode in order to save water. Our flagship project is a sewage purification plant. In another 10 months it will be up and running, and will provide treated water for all of the city's needs. In the new neighborhoods, the infrastructure is already in place to link them to the purification plant."

Givon says Dimona is on the verge of getting an ISO standard, an international standard for environmental management enforced by the Israel Standards Institute. This will be the last step in the city's revolution.

"The standard requires that all systems in the city function environmentally," she says. "This means saving paper and electricity, using environmentally friendly pesticides, and environmentally conscious management of the schools. An environmental architect who designed a new neighborhood made sure not to harm an adjacent riverbed. The 34 municipal employees have attended a course on environmental issues."

Givon worked for 16 years at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, organizing public environmental campaigns. She lives in Omer.

"We tried to carry out this project in Mitzpeh Ramon, and it failed there," she says. The money now flowing into Dimona is largely due to her efforts. "We raised hundreds of thousands of shekels from different organizations, such as Shari Arison's Matan Fund, the Custodian General's Office and British Jewry's Shoresh Fund."

Thanks to these contributions, veteran resident Puah Tsfoni, 60, now feels she can finally smile when she talks about her neighborhood. She moved there 40 years ago from Tel Aviv as a teacher-soldier. At first she worked as a teacher, and then she became a journalist.

"Now we see around us a new environment," says Tsfoni. "Cleanliness and tranquillity. Until not long ago, all the criminals of Dimona - drug dealers, drug addicts, prostitutes and marginalized youth - came here. This was a city of refuge, an extraterritorial place. The police were afraid to come here. There were syringes next to the stairwell of every building, every abandoned site became a venue for crime. It was impossible. This was a paradise for all the dregs of society, and we had to live in it."

"The residents are the ones who succeeded in making the change here. The walls, which were once covered with graffiti, whose contents it is best not to elaborate on, are now decorated with murals. The drug stations were razed and replaced by a new bus station. The unique thing about this neighborhood is that it's no longer unique. Now it's a completely normal neighborhood. Now the apartments are rented to families. People are agreeing to come here.

"It was a long process in which we involved the police and the mayor, a process in which the community took responsibility for the environment. At first they didn't understand the change here, it was so foreign that the first reaction was to shatter the flowerpots in the renovated squares. Now they have already learned to enjoy the beauty."

Finding the money

But there is also a price to this story. In order to continue the process, new and additional sources of funding have to be found. Givon and Cohen realized that big money could be obtained from the chemical plants surrounding Dimona. The Rotem phosphates plant, for example, supports the construction of youth clubs in the city and sends its workers to participate in social activities. Givon is in close contact with all the chemical plants in the vicinity, which are funding some of the organization's projects in the local Bedouin villages and are about to get involved in several projects in Dimona.

Givon has been working for more than three years in collaboration with the Forum for Environmental Responsibility in Industry, which unites the Bromide Compounds, Makhteshim, Teva, Ramat Hovav, Dead Sea Works and Rotem plants. For this reason, many see her as one who has crossed the line. According to Tzipi Eiser-Itzik, the director general of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED), Givon's actions are making the chemical plants seem blameless.

"There is nothing wrong with talking to industry," she argues, "but the problem is that it is coming in the place of transparency, instead of the plants' upholding their legal and environmental obligations. Givon's organization is the only one that has stood by the plants in the south with eyes shut, plants that largely do not provide information and are the target of criminal proceedings due to deviations of tens of percent from emissions standards."

"I have led many battles in my life," Givon responds, "and I reached the conclusion that I have exhausted this method. A battle creates a total disconnect; the two sides become entrenched in their positions. The international environmental movement concluded that working together is the best way. I didn't invent it, it's happening all over the world. The smart thing to do is to make the plants take responsibility for the environment. I concluded that we have to live with the chemical industry, and therefore my goal is to make it as harmless as possible.

"I live here and believe me, I don't have a sentimental attachment to a single chemical plant. I could have organized more protests and more court proceedings. Would that have made us more environmentally conscious?"