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Israelis campaign against army building roads in nature reserves

Israelis living in the north of Israel are currently campaigning against the Israel Defense Forces’ intention to pave roads near the border fence that will pass through nature reserves.
Tourists bath in the Hexagons pool, near the Had Nes settlement in the Israel-annexed Golan Heights on April 26, 2019. - The Hexagons pool, also known as the Meshushim pool, is a natural pool fed by the Nature Reserve Meshushim River. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)

The Israeli army said Sept. 7 that it will halt training in an olive grove in the Upper Galilee region. The ancient grove — cultivated for many years by disabled Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veteran Ilan Rona — is adjacent to a Golani Brigade firing range. Usually, the drills are kept within a strict parameter, but two weeks ago, a firing drill by a Golani unit spilled over into the grove, sparking a bushfire and damaging olive trees 100 years old.

Workers at the grove said that the spill two weeks ago was not the first time that ammunition found its way into the plantation. In fact, it has almost become a habit for them to pick up cast bullets, grenade launchers and other military debris that lies scattered in the area. Dozens of olive tree trunks have been damaged, and some of the old trees have bullet holes. Two trees are completely broken.

"Once it became clear that the training in the new perimeter caused damage in the olive groves adjacent to the firing ranges, the IDF northern command prohibited exercises in this perimeter. These days, the northern command is busy regulating the ensemble of firing ranges vis-a-vis the authorities and vis-a-vis the Israel Land Authority. We deeply regret the damaged caused to Mr. Rona and his family. We will do our outmost to prevent fires and damaging nature, including in firing ranges," the army stated.

The olive grove story is unusual, but the friction between the army and civilians in farmlands and in nature reserves happens on a daily basis. In most cases, like the Upper Galilee olive grove, a solution or a compromise is reached, at some point. But there are also cases where activists are forced to conduct long campaigns to protect ecological-sensitive areas.

Gilad Gabay, southern region director of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, told Al-Monitor that Israel is a small and crowded country, which is why land use requires constant compromises. "There are about 3 million dunams of nature lands that are also used by the army. A point of friction that requires daily dialogue and cooperation. That's why the IDF and the Nature and Parks Authority have signed several years ago a covenant that sets the rules for military exercises and military infrastructure. For instance, in an area we consider sensitive in terms of landscape and ecological system, tanks and heavy machinery won’t be allowed — only pedestrian training."

Gabay explained that these rules also apply to the IDF air force. "Some of the rare birds in Israel are very sensitive to strong sounds and to air shocks. At the authority, we have specific maps that indicate where eagles and vultures are nesting in order to regulate where and at which altitude fighter jets can fly. In some areas, IDF jets are instructed not to fly too low, so as not scare the eagles and make them abandon their nests."

Most of these sensitive areas are located in the south of Israel. But recent tensions in the north with Hezbollah have generated massive presence of the army near the borders with Syria and Lebanon. Thus, IDF infrastructure projects in the region are becoming more and more a source of conflict between the army and local naturalists. The army is now planning to flatten some land in order to enable the movement of heavy and armored vehicles near the border fences. These roads will pass for the most part through nature reserves.

According to publications, the army began to evaluate in May a plan to pave a road through the Baram Forest Nature Reserve in the Upper Galilee. Specialists explain that this reserve is unique in its giant oak timber and in its pure grove that sustains all kinds of plants and animals. Another plan that is currently being considered by the army is a road that will pass through the Nahal Kziv Nature Reserve, also in the north. The Kziv stream is one of the most beautiful streams in the region with flowing water, animals and forest views, and it serves as an ecological corridor for animals traveling between different parts of the Galilee region.

The IDF had said it has not yet determined the final paths of the roads it wishes to construct near the border fences. Still, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) — the country’s most veteran nature preservation group — is worried about the project and has already proposed some alternatives. Local residents have joined the SPNI in its campaign — they are also concerned about irreversible damage to the fragile ecosystems around them.

"In the great majority of cases, we manage to reach a compromise. The army is aware of the importance of preserving our environment, and we conduct a fruitful dialogue. But in some cases we simply disagree. Of course security considerations are of the outmost importance, but so are civil life, protecting nature and enabling people to walk around and experience vegetations and plants. It is important that the army does not look only at the security interests, but includes all the different elements in the final equation," Gabay concluded.

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