'We Have Been Told Israel Is the Most Beautiful Country in the World. That's Not True'

Take the love of the wild shared by locals and tourists alike, add it to booming population growth and you get a daunting forecast for nature lovers, characterized by noise, overcrowding and garbage

The banks of the Yarkon River, northeast of Tel Aviv.
Moshe Gilad

Dozens of families gathered on a recent Saturday on the banks of the Yarkon River, northeast of Tel Aviv. A small nature site is located there, featuring gigantic eucalyptus trees that cast their shade over the water. The river is actually a shallow, knee-deep stream a few meters wide; it can easily be crossed. Over 100 adults and children, as well as a few dogs, splashed about in the water or sat on the banks. A smell of grilled meat wafted from the barbecues that dotted the grassy areas nearby, music blaring from loudspeakers all around. From time to time an SUV appeared, trying to cross the stream, its driver loudly demanding that the way be cleared for his vehicle.

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The scene was the same at Nahal Keini (Keini Stream) near the Meggido Junction, where there’s a tiny spring spilling into a concrete pool and a few large mulberry trees. Ditto in the Upper Galilee, at the Tzalmon Stream and Parod waterfalls, near Safed. The gate to Ein Gedi’s popular Nahal David and the abutting Dead Sea is closed almost every Saturday, as soon as the parking lot at that nature reserve fills up. And it’s not always so pleasant when one arrives at the Ein Tina spring in the Golan Heights, where water flows from a pipe into a small pool: It gets jam-packed every weekend, with hundreds of visitors.

Most visitors one sees at Israel’s nature sites simply want to go somewhere pleasant with their children, walk along a beautiful path, have fun, take a dip in some cool water (during the summer months), and enjoy a picnic on a checkered blanket in peace and quiet. These are the moments when one’s soul can breathe and take in the amazing beauty of this country: a wood, a spring, a shady trail, a breathtaking landscape. But the way things are today, this is hardly likely to happen.

Bathers in Spring Valley in northern Israel.
Gil Eliahu

Many weekend wanderers I’ve talked to recently say that nature outings have become painful experiences. There’s something deceptive at play, it seems. We’re promised one thing – a land flowing with milk and honey – but we encounter something totally different: overcrowding, litter, noise and nowhere to move about freely. The result is total despair.

Recently, at the Ein Akev spring near Sde Boker, in the Negev, we waited for over an hour until we got a chance to take a dip in the water. At the remote Zror waterhole, which took two hours to get to, walking in blistering heat, we were amazed to find dozens of people, avid hikers like us who were sitting in the water and staring at us, as if to ask: “Why did you come here? Can’t you see there’s no room to stick a toe in?”

Overcrowding clearly doesn’t make people nicer. They become nervous, impatient, unfriendly. Of course, one can’t blame them: They also dreamed of something different when they urged their kids to hurry to get ready early that morning, promising them they would have a fun day. And yet a few hours later, things turned out differently.

We live in a densely populated country, which is something that impinges on every aspect of our lives. Now it seems that the experience that was meant to give us a break from all that – a pleasant excursion in nature – has also been severely affected by this phenomenon. Splendid isolation, even for a short while, is unthinkable, especially if you work during the week. And we haven’t even mentioned the dubious experience of being stuck in traffic jams on weekends and holidays, or the masses of people and vehicles at the entrances to the more popular nature reserves.

Edward Abbey, an American author and environmental activist, wrote in his 1997 book “The Journey Home” that every person seeks a refuge in which he can peacefully let go and relax. If Abbey had visited Israel today (he died 30 years ago), he’d tear his hair out in despair.

Hikers crossing a rope bridge over the Besor river
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A million visitors in a week

Recent figures show that these aren’t just subjective impressions. The Nature and Parks Authority published the following data at the end of the recent Sukkot holiday: One million visitors, including 100,000 tourists, visited the country’s nature reserves during the week-long holiday –15 percent more than last year. Last Passover there were 1.5 million visitors. The leading attractions were Caesarea, the Ein Afek reserve, Masada, Ein Gedi, Banias, the Snir Stream (Hatsbani), Gan Hashlosha (Sahne), Ma’ayan Harod (the Harod Spring) and the coral reserve in Eilat. Moreover, during that period, 63,000 people stayed overnight at authority-run camping sites, 20,000 in open areas. Half of them stayed in Harod, Achziv, the Tal nature reserve (Horshat Tal) and the national park in Ashkelon.

These figures are seemingly good news, indicating that Israelis (and their guests) love nature and open spaces. But if one factors in data attesting to the rapidly growing population – totaling some nine million today (as opposed to 1948, when there was one tenth of that), crowded into a relatively small area – the forecast is daunting indeed.

Israel’s population density is currently 405 people per square kilometer (0.4 square mile). For the sake of comparison, that figure is 81 in Greece, 100 in France and Turkey, 112 in Portugal, 32 in the United States, and a mere 8 inhabitants per square kilometer in Russia. While there are countries with much higher population densities than Israel, including Bangladesh, Taiwan, South Korea and Lebanon – their situation hasn’t changed as quickly in the past few decades. They have not morphed from a spacious country in which one can go out into nature and enjoy oneself, into one in which this is simply impossible.

Moreover, on our beaches, the problem is even worse: Israel’s coastline is 300 kilometers (186 miles) long and during the peak season, in the summer, there are 4,500 visitors per kilometer.

Bathers in Spring Valley in northern Israel.
Moshe Gilad

In his book “Keyamim Ahadim” (translated as “The Loves of Judith”), Meir Shalev writes of his narrator lying on his back, letting a blanket of silence descend from the treetops onto his body as spiderwebs glisten and beetles trundle along, and a damp warmth rises through the leaves on the ground, indicating the slow process of disintegration taking place underneath. Shalev, who has penned some of the most beautiful descriptions of nature in Hebrew literature, travels a lot around the country.

“Every place that has some water is now condemned to impossible overcrowding,” he tells Haaretz thoughtfully. “Last month I went to the Golan Heights. I came to a spring above Lake Kinneret at six o’clock in the morning. It was still empty and pleasant. Three hours later, at another spring, more than 100 people were taking a dip in a tiny pool. There seems to be an insane attraction to water holes here. I’ve even seen people having a pastoral picnic on the edge of sewage canal. The sound of gurgling was enough for them. Personally, I have no urge to go cool off in water; just give me the desert. The most intensely enjoyable experience for me is to be in an open space, with wide expanses. It gives you the illusion of being in a big, empty country.”

Today we must acknowledge the fact, Shalev adds, that we are living in a small and overcrowded country whose inhabitants still love going out into nature. This poses a challenge for people who believe that the enjoyment involved in doing that includes the possibility of being in such places alone, observing the scenery in peace.

“For years,” he says, “we've been told that Israel is the most beautiful country in the world. That’s not true. There are more beautiful places. What is true, however, is that Israel has a wide variety of landscapes for such a small area. One can descend from Mount Hermon in the north to the Dead Sea in four hours. The beauty of a particular location is only part of the story for me. My connection with this country is deeper. I always look for a place that has a personal story, a historical or biblical one – and those you have only here. The only way to teach the Bible in Israel is at a young age and outdoors – whether it’s the battle of David and Goliath in the Elah Valley or the story of King Saul on Mount Gilboa.”

Author Meir Shalev
Tomer Appelbaum

The Bible, Shalev continues, is meager in its descriptions of nature and those who wrote it weren’t really interested in it. But the love of nature fit into the political agenda of the founders of Zionism and the pioneers of the Second Aliyah – the wave of immigration to Palestine from 1904 to 1914. Back then, he says, animals were classified as either friendly or unfriendly. For example, the Anopheles mosquito, which spread malaria in the years before the state was established, was a great adversary of Zionism.

When I ask about solutions to the current situation, Shalev initially responds with irony: “One should prohibit the publication of any travel guides to springs and other sources of water, or to all-terrain-vehicle trips.” Later, in a more serious vein, he observes that high population density will teach us all to better respect other people. His own outings have now shifted far away from roads highways and involve complicated navigation. “My impression is that most of the overnight campsites in the Negev were deliberately built in the ugliest and most repulsive locations. Maybe they’re meant to deter people from coming,” adds Shalev.

'Defensive hiking'

Iris Hahn, director of the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel, does not foresee a rosy future for nature lovers. “There’s no doubt that the pressure [on nature sites] will mount,” she says, adding that to relieve it, more municipal parks must be established, such as the Gazelle Valley Park in Jerusalem, which is “wilder” than the Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv but is still a municipal, man-made project.

“Our vision is to establish such sites in every city,” she says. “In Haifa one could relatively easily arrange places in which to experience nature in the numerous wadis around the city. This would be an important venture – combining social and environmental justice with accessibility and less traveling.”

Elal river at the Golan Heights.
Gil Eliahu

Another solution, Hahn suggests, involves adoption of different behavioral norms, including meticulous avoidance of littering as well as respecting other visitors on a trail.

“Many hikers are very ‘present’ while hiking. Walking in nature requires a degree of modesty and respect for the location and for other people. It’s important to internalize that walking in nature involves keeping quiet and allowing other people some space, and that when it’s crowded it’s even more important to keep these rules. The impact of noisy hikers or all-terrain vehicles and their ilk is huge,” she says.

Hahn also notes the problem of numerous military fire zones across the country, adding that 98 percent of the Negev’s open spaces are controlled by the Israel Defense Forces, the Defense Ministry or the parks authority. These areas are mostly closed to visitors. Evacuating some of the fire zones, or opening them up periodically, would reduce the pressure of traffic in other open areas.

“It’s unreasonable that between Mitzpeh Ramon and the Arava there are currently only two hiking trails. We channel hikers into limited areas, and the pressure there increases,” says Hahn.

Another issue is what's referred to as “defensive hiking.” Since the tragedy a year ago in Nahal Tzafit, south of the Dead Sea, in which 10 high-schoolers were killed by floodwaters, there has great concern in the school system about similar disasters and lawsuits in the future. The result: School outings are restricted to fewer areas and last for shorter periods, which leads to greater congestion.

“There are more hikers now, but the value of the experience is being eroded,” Hahn declares. “One should be cautious, of course, but one should also treat this whole issue as one relates to driving: We know someone could die on the road but we still drive.”

Having said all this, we did experience one magical moment while dipping our feet in the cold Banias River. We watched a yellow leaf floating languidly on the water, praying that no one else would come. And we were happy.