As the population of Israel grows, so do the requests for building and expansion within the small country. Unfettered growth and expansion has nature conservationists throwing up their arms.
“The laws that we have today on planning are not strict enough in order to protect open landscape and natural landscape,” said Yehoshua Shkedy, a professor at Hebrew University and scientist with the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA). “The government is trying to move now a new law that is trying to make things easier for developers.”
Expansion is just the latest fight Israeli wildlife preservationists have taken up since the state’s creation. In 1962, the government enacted a conservation law to help restore the wildlife population decimated by hunting and wars within the region. Many of the animals of the region were either extinct in the area or on the verge of becoming so. For example, of the nine mammals mentioned in the Bible as fit for consumption (Deuteronomy 14: 4-5) — roe deer, Persian fallow deer, gazelle, addax, bison, oryx, wild goat, wild ox and ibex — only the gazelle and the ibex remained in Israel by the 1960s.
Since then, the INNPPA has reintroduced several of the animals that were driven from the region. Their most successful reintroduction has been of the Persian fallow deer, which now has a population of around 500 throughout several regions of the country.
The largest of the fallow deer, the Persian fallow stands about 3 feet tall at the shoulder, weighs 90 to 220 pounds and has a yellowish-brown coat with white spots, and flattened antlers similar to those of a moose. The Book of Kings tells that the animal was tithed to King Solomon by his subjects. Now they are either closely watched or live in fenced-in areas protected by the INNPPA or other conservation groups.
The conservationists’ worry is that all their work could be undone by the bulldozers in upcoming expansion projects.
Shkedy said that when his parents moved to Israel in 1947 they had a dream of agriculture and development. But, he said, times and circumstances have changed a lot since then.
“I think today, my generation and my kids’ generation have to change this aspiration, this vision. We have to conserve and protect rather than develop and invest. We should keep in mind that we didn’t come to this country just because we wanted to see a sea of houses. We came to this country — I’m not religious — because of biblical things,” he said.
The animals Shkedy is protecting are part of that biblical history. But, for many conservationists, the reintroduction of animals is not a matter of the history of the land but the importance of nature.
“Reintroductions are vitally important to return functions to the ecosystem that were lost,” said David Saltz, a professor with the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University. “The idea is that reintroductions return species to the area [from which] they were lost, and what records do we have of what existed there? The Bible.”
Using biblical animals as a stepping stone is just one way conservationists are able to reach out and draw attention to their cause.
“Using the biblical item in order to convince others it’s important — this is the way to go,” Shkedy said. “We can use the Bible as a kind of lighthouse.”
That lighthouse is used to convince the general public that conservation is just as important as building.
“Today is a very interesting time, when the country is being divided into two growing camps — a camp of the developers and the camp of the green movement,” Shkedy said. “Both of them are now gaining momentum, and there is a huge fight. You can see the debate on the new law for the development, where the government wants to move and decimate the abilities of the green parties to influence the different committees. It’s a strong debate. Now the question is, who’s going to win?”
Some nature lovers fear that, with the country’s growth rate hovering around 2.5 percent a year, it won’t be long before most of the natural land is taken over for development.
“I’m very, very connected to nature, everything around my town is nature,” said Roee Arad, an INNPPA park ranger. “If my organization doesn’t do its job properly, in a few years my kids won’t have something to see — no animals or nature. It’s very important for people to stand and fight for nature.”
The situation becomes even more difficult for conservationists in Israel because of the size of the country and its small bio-geographical zones. There are four main bio-geographical zones that run through the country, stretching from the desert climate of the East to the Mediterranean climate of the West, and these zones help create the diversity of wildlife in Israel. If builders take out one whole zone, they could wipe out an entire species of plant or animal.
“It is a small country with a very high human population, and is very diverse with different climatic zones, so everything exists in a small space,” Saltz said.
Because of these small bio-geographical zones, conservation in Israel is even more important, Shkedy said, adding that the country contains four major climate zones.
Shkedy argued that during a global warming period, a place like Israel is vital to sustain life, because, as the Earth warms, climate zones change. In Israel, because the different zones are so close together, plants and animals can slowly shift zones without becoming extinct.
Saltz sees more urgent arguments for alarm: “The rate they are building this country, I’m not sure that is possible,” he said in response to Shkedy’s theory. “It is very hypothetical.”
The tug-of-war between those who want to see the animals of the Bible return to the wild in Israel, and those who care only about expansion and building so more can live comfortably in the region is far from over.
“It’s a fact of life, it’s a never-ending war; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” Saltz said. “There are actions on all fronts on this — trying to declare more reserves, increasing the ability of protecting endangered species, securing corridors — but the situation over here is far, far more complicated and far from over.”
Kevin Patra is a master’s degree candidate in online journalism at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. He is co-founder of the sports commentary Web site thesportsunion.com.