Saturday December 20, 2014
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20.12.2014
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Carmi Wisemon

Environmental disparities in Israel

Earth Day, observed on April 22 around the planet, is a wonderful opportunity for Israel's environmental movement to take stock of the environmental successes and challenges facing the State of Israel.

In the last decade, Israel has vastly improved its environmental standing in a range of fields. Israel's level of recycling has surpassed that of the U.S., bicycle paths have been built in many of our larger cities, and environmental hazards such as the gas depot at Pi Glilot have been closed down. Campaigns to protect from development open spaces such as Palmachim Beach and Titura Hill in Modiin, and the cancelling of the Safdie development plan in western Jerusalem, have empowered the Israeli environmental movement to safeguard the country's natural resources.

However, if you look carefully, you will notice that most of the successes of Israel's environmental movement have primarily benefitted residents in the center of the country in Israel's most prosperous cities.

The Pi Glilot gas depot in Ramat Hasharon, situated between Tel Aviv and Herzliya, has been closed; but the Pi Glilot gas depot next to Jerusalem's religious Har Nof neighborhood continues to function and endanger the health of its neighbors, even though it has received a closure notice from the Environmental Protection Ministry.

In Raanana and Kfar Saba, you find recycling bins on almost every street, but you have to look very hard to find them in Netivot or Beit She'an.

Bicycle paths have been built in Israel's larger and more prosperous cities, but you won't find any in the poorer sections of those cities, or in the periphery.

The Safdie plan for the development of western Jerusalem was stopped because of massive public pressure that the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and other environmental organizations applied to both municipal and government leaders. But what was their alternative for the population that was supposed to live in Jerusalem? The answer was simple: Direct them elsewhere, to a place where the residents could not oppose such a move. In an extremely rapid process, tens of thousands of housing units were approved to be built on the hills of the backwater town of Beit Shemesh. The residents of Beit Shemesh and the Mateh Yehuda regional council filed 7,400 legal objections to the plan, but their objections fell on the deaf ears of the Jerusalem Regional Planning and Building Commission. This was especially egregious because a representative of the environmental movement (in this case, SPNI) rejected the objections of local residents and sided with the planning commission. The result will be the complete destruction of the green belt surrounding Beit Shemesh. Today, some of the more established residents of Beit Shemesh -- including some haredim -- are beginning to leave the city due to the expected congestion, air pollution and the destruction of the city's green belt that will bring about a drastic change for the worse in their quality of life.

Why were the residents of Beit Shemesh unable to stop construction on the hills surrounding their city, when the residents of Modiin and Jerusalem were able to do so, even though the latter filed far fewer legal objections?

The answer is as complex as it is simple: Many of those who work in Israel's larger environmental organizations, and the philanthropic foundations that fund them, live in the cities that were able to successfully protect their environment. A strong civil society is the most important factor in waging a successful campaign against local authorities, who don't always consider residents' environmental needs as their highest priority.

For the past 10 years, Israel's environmental movement has focused on challenges that were close to them and close to their hearts. The few available resources were used primarily for the benefit of Israel's wealthier and more established communities. Thus, the quality of life in Raanana, Modiin and certain parts of Tel Aviv has improved. But in Israel's geographic and social peripheries, such as Beit Shemesh and the poorer parts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the quality of life has worsened.

In the environmental arena, as in other fields, Israel is developing into two separate countries: the haves and the have-nots. If you want a good education, job opportunities, medical facilities and a healthy environment, make sure that you don't live in Israel's geographic or social periphery.

If we want to stop the growing environmental disparity in Israel, it is time that activists in the environmental movement begin to invest seriously in the periphery as if it were our own backyard.

Carmi Wisemon is the executive director of Sviva Israel.

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