INTERVIEW / Is the IDF One of the Biggest Polluters in Israel?

'We are an army and our activities will always cause damage to the environment, but we have to act in such a way that these damages are minimized,' says head of IDF's environmental protection division.

In recent years, the Israel Defense Forces has come under blistering criticism from the Environmental Protection Ministry and the State Comptroller for a large number of environmental hazards and its contravention of environmental laws. Now the army is trying to change its ways.

Eli Paz- Yonatan Ben David
Yonatan Ben David

Yesterday IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi launched a multi-year program for tackling environmental hazards as well as a project to make the Officers Training School a green base. It is Lt. Col. Eli Paz, who heads the environmental protection division of the army's Technology and Logistics Directorate that is responsible for turning the IDF from olive to green.

Is the IDF still one of the biggest polluter's in Israel?

We are undergoing a process of change that finds expression in the attitude of the most senior brass, and the chief of staff has adopted our plan for preventing hazards and dealing with past hurdles. We started the process already after the State Comptroller's severe report on this subject six years ago. There were a number of years when things did not move forward but now [we have] the know-how and a work plan that can bring about a change.

What will your new plan deal with?

Almost all the money allocated to it - about NIS 1 billion - will be earmarked in the next 15 years for dealing with two major problems: Linking up more than 200 bases to sewage facilities and treating the facilities that leak oil and gasoline. In addition, we'll deal with the buildings that contain asbestos whose area covers more than 100,000 square meters, and we'll change brake parts made of asbestos in thousands of vehicles. There is also the important component of spreading awareness, educating and implementing environmental considerations into military activities. There is no doubt that we have a great many gaps to close.

What kind of gaps?

There are many constructs in the army today not suited to deal with environmental hazards but we continue to create these hazards even next to population centers. Until now, there have not been regulations and orders that relate to the environmental issues and we have difficulty coping with legal steps against us and with the application of all the environmental legislation. There are also difficulties vis-a-vis the civilian world. There are insufficient contractors today who are capable of carrying out all the work we need done. There are problems with out connecting to the local authorities' waste purification systems because we pay for treatment but when there are hitches they come to us with complaints even though we don't operate the waste purification system.

What do you mean by 'implementing environmental considerations into military activities?'

We are an army and our activities will always cause damage to the environment, but we have to act in such a way that these damages are minimized. We have gotten approval from the high command to change regulations and orders so that all military activities, from construction to exercises, will be carried out while taking into account environmental considerations. A brigade commander who is planning an exercise will hold a preliminary tour in which he will examine not only the safety aspects but also the possible environmental ramifications. For example, is there an antiquities site in the area, or a concentration of wild flowers that have to be protected. We are already implementing environmental considerations into our construction. Now we are setting up buildings that are green and which have been planned in advance to use energy and water efficiently.

What resources are available toward these goals?

We have 15 professional officers in the authority all of whom have a very deep commitment to the field. In addition, there are officers for environmental protection in every branch of the army and additional people responsible for this subject in the units that have undergone special training. Recently we were also joined by a legal adviser. We also have the possibility of controlling the budgets. For example, the air force recently wanted funding for planning a better-shaded building and we told them that first they needed to take care of basic infrastructures like sewage.

Why does the army need a special legal adviser for environmental affairs?

One of the reasons for this is the warnings from the Environmental Protection Ministry that were submitted to commanders following the creation of various hazards which could also lead to claims against the commanders. Another central reason is that the environmental legislation is moving forward and we need someone who can be involved and assist us with this. We have to adapt the orders to the legislation because today we are not yet ready for the legislation that is already being planned.

What steps are you taking in case environmental problems continue or your instructions are not carried out?

We recently had a case where, because of a mistake made by a soldier in one of the bases in the north, diesel fuel leaked into the ground. The case was reported to us immediately and we also updated the ministry. We sent a team there and they investigated in order to prevent a similar case from happening. If it happens again, we have the possibility of putting those responsible on trial.

What goals have you set for saving energy and water, and what likelihood is there that you will meet them if in the past decade the consumption of electricity in the army rose by 70 percent?

The consumption of electricity rose because the army is getting bigger and because different types of equipment need more electricity. The goal set by the chief of staff is a 10-percent savings in electricity use this year. We are already taking a great many steps including the introduction of lighting control devices, water saving devices and the establishment of solar facilities. In the first stage, we are planning to introduce these facilities on 10 bases. We are also encouraging the recycling of waste matter and this will lead to savings. At present, the army pays 70 million shekels annually for garbage removal and a large part of this is a fee for burying it. If we recycle more, we'll pay less.