Unit's Graduation Ceremony Hazardous to Wildlife

The graduation ceremony of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit could damage a Negev nature reserve, environmental scientists warn. The scientists say they have asked the IDF and Nature and Parks Authority to move the ceremony, which they say violates the rules limiting activity in parks and nature reserves, to another location.

The special-operations force marks the end of its training course with two annual ceremonies around and inside the National Park in the Negev. The next ceremony is scheduled in the coming weeks in the park, close to the habitat of numerous wild animals.

The ceremony, which involves firing weapons and bright lights, has been approved by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA ) in charge of the national park. The GOC Southern Command has allowed the shooting and lighting even outside the designated firing zone.

When they heard of the activity planned in the park, a number of scientists from Tel Aviv University, including Prof. Eli Gefen, who does research in the area, and Dr. Yossi Leshem, urged the IDF and parks authority to stop holding the ceremonies in the park and move it somewhere else.

"The national park is full of the Rock Hyrax, an animal superficially resembling a guinea pig, various birds and their nestling chicks and other wild animals. The ceremony will undoubtedly harm them," one of their letters said.

"This activity takes place in an area where nature should be preserved and which is not a firing zone," Gefen said. "INPA does not allow any other body to carry out activities in this area, which are contrary to nature preserve regulations. The ceremony can be held in an archaeological site, although I think it would not be fitting to turn them into ceremony sites. If it's important to hold the ceremony they can do it in the firing zone," he said.

Parks officials examined the area before permitting the ceremony and concluded that no real damage would be caused to nature, authority sources told Haaretz. The officials said the use of firearms and lighting devices will be limited and take place during hours when hikers are permitted to visit the park.

They said the site provides the infrastructure to all the ceremony's stages, and if it is relocated to the firing zone, new infrastructure will have to be installed, causing much greater environmental damage. Leshem said a Sayeret Matkal officer contacted him yesterday and told him that the next ceremony will consist of less use of firearms and lighting and that the ceremony after that will be held elsewhere.

The IDF said the event was coordinated with the parks authority, promising to maintain nature preservation rules. The IDF said Southern Command takes pains to preserve the environment in its routine and operative activity.