Racheli Wacks

Camouflaged Pollution

December 29, 2019

The IDF has the critical mission of ensuring Israel’s security, but often during its activities, the environment gets damaged. So who is guarding the guards?

The Hanita Nature Reserve, a unique forest on the Israeli-Lebanese border, has many different orchid species and animals. However, the IDF demolished part of the reserve to pave a military escape route, which altered the landscape and habitat significantly. This was done despite opposition from local residents and environmental organizations which are currently trying to prevent the paving of another route nearby.

The IDF has the critical mission of maintaining Israel’s security. This is often accompanied by non-environmentally friendly circumstances, which according to various sources, the military does not work hard enough to prevent.

“The army is a huge organization whose operations are carried out in all parts of the country. The defense establishment occupies 52% of the territory of the State of Israel,” says Victor Weiss, executive director of the Heschel Center for Sustainability and former head of the IDF Environment Department.

According to Weiss, military activity such as explosives and driving tanks causes environmental destruction. “Military activity also produces waste and pollutants including fuels, oils, hazardous materials, radiation, and noise,” he says.

Last May, the State Comptroller’s Report on the IDF’s activities in environmental protection was published, which was based on an audit conducted by the State Comptroller’s Office from 2017 to 2018. According to the report, the IDF’s ecological footprint is causing a large impact on the environment due to its lack of leadership with environmental control.

The military occupies 52% of the territory of the State of Israel. Photo by Israel Defense Forces on Flickr.

Environmental negligence

Hagai Blachner, director of supervision and enforcement of the Green Police system at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, says the IDF has a problem when disposing of wastewater since the bases and facilities are not yet connected to the sewer system.

“When there are malfunctions in civil pipelines, they are treated right away because everyone is immediately aware. When this happens in the IDF, and there are hazards in areas that are probably more hidden, the sewage will flow for days and weeks. It reaches the streams and pollutes our water sources and the environment.”

According to the auditor’s report, although the government imposed a multi-year plan on the Defense Ministry that was supposed to change the situation, the IDF’s connection to the sewer was only partially implemented. This situation is not expected to change in the near future.

Another area in which the IDF proves to be harmful to the environment is air pollution. The report says that the IDF disposes of old ammunition, among other things, through explosions and open pit fires. Both processes emit pollutants into the air.

The Defense Ministry intermittently worked from 2010 to 2018 to establish an ammunition disposal facility to replace the current disposal methods, but no facility was ever established. The report notes that “continuing the existing situation could have an impact on the quality of air in the State of Israel.”

“Although there is a national plan for the removal of asbestos, the army is not up to schedule. Asbestos hazards still exist and are harmful to the environment and to IDF soldiers,” says Blachner. Asbestos, a fibrous mineral often used in construction, is known to be carcinogenic to humans.

“Another disturbing issue is land pollution from fuel, ”says Blachner, which occurs if a leak forms in one of the reservoirs where the IDF stores hazardous liquids such as gasoline. Such reservoirs are connected to containers where a liquid can escape. In the event of a leak, soldiers are not guided on how to operate such containers, which in turn, can harm the soldiers.

Extensive cutbacks

In 2010, the military approved a plan to protect the environment, which was to be executed over 15 years. However, according to the report, the multi-year plan was not implemented as scheduled, and therefore, has no results.

This lack of implementation, according to the auditor’s report, is due to deficiencies rooted in the environmental management of the IDF, which have allowed continuous and interrupted harm to the environment. The body responsible for IDF environmental oversight was transferred from the Technology and Logistics Division to the Planning Division within the Environmental Protection Administration. Personnel dedicated to handling environmental issues have thus been significantly cut and also lack experience in this area.

Thus, as of 2016, the position of head of the Environmental Protection Division has not been filled. In seven of the other branches and commands, the heads of the Environmental Protection Department are not fully engaged nor have they have not received professional training on the subject. In fact, according to the report, more than half of environmental protection officials in most arms and commands were not trained to perform their duties.

Blachner adds that environmental damage is not receiving the proper attention because of a limited budget. “In many cases, unit commanders know about the problems and want to fix them, but they don’t have the money they need. I came out to talk to commanders who told me, ‘Listen, I have such and such amount of money for the unit’s activities, but nothing was allocated for dealing with environmental hazards.’ Sometimes it’s a matter of a few thousand shekels, and even that is not allocated,” he said.

The IDF struggles with numerous environmental issues, such as wastewater disposal, air pollution, asbestos hazards, and fuel pollution. Photo by Jasmine Halki on Flickr.

Seven years in dispute

All military conduct (such as health, employment, etc.), are solely enforced by the IDF itself. The environment is the only facet of the IDF in which an external body is required for supervision, which poses difficulties in the enforcement process.

“Suddenly there is a civilian entity that wants to enter the base,” says Blachner. “Although we have the authority, there are commanders in the military who are still reluctant to let us in and take a look around their base. It’s an issue that we are constantly faced with.”

Environmental oversight in the IDF so problematic because the Defense and Environment ministries have been in disagreement for seven years about how enforcement is to be carried out.

“Two government bodies do not come to an agreement, so nothing happens,” said attorney Asaf Rosenblum, director of the legal department of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense.

The State Comptroller’s Report not only points fingers, but also instructs on how to correct flaws and deficiencies, and states the officials responsible for them.

“Throughout the years, the IDF’s environmental conduct has been very problematic. It has a difficult history with regards to environmental protection,” Rosenblum concludes. “For that to change, there are plans that just need to be implemented. The things that need to be done are clear.”

The IDF responded

“The IDF invests considerable resources and efforts in protecting the environment and acts in accordance with the law. The IDF acts in accordance with the orders to prevent fuel leakage events. Each fuel leak event is subject to a thorough and professional response, in accordance with regular operations and in cooperation with the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Environment. In addition, in the event of a malfunction, civilian companies perform the necessary treatment.

“The IDF has removed thousands of items containing asbestos from its vehicles and equipment since 2011. Today, the IDF has no asbestos components that endanger soldiers’ health. The IDF invests extensive resources in annual work programs to address environmental hazards.

A special division has been established in the IDF, starting in 2020, which will carry out regular reviews in the units, train people in environmental conduct, and establish a call center to report problems.

One of the responsibilities of the administration in question will be to provide training for senior officials on environmental protection issues, whose role will be to instill environmental awareness in the organization.”

The Environmental Protection Ministry’s response

The State Comptroller’s Report accurately reflects the difficulties encountered by the Environmental Protection Ministry in its work with the Defense Ministry and the IDF to implement policies for the prevention and reduction of environmental risks, including ongoing asbestos hazards, air and soil contamination, poor waste management and others.

Despite the fact that Israeli security forces are causing serious environmental damage, so far there has been insufficient cooperation and willingness to improve. According to the auditor’s comment, the lack of cooperation has led to delayed responses to environment-related incidents, in some cases years, which has only aggravated the damage caused by them.

The Ministry of Environment Protection hopes that the severe audit report will significantly improve the security force’s conduct and will avoid risking the lives of IDF soldiers and the public. (Zavit Science and Environment News Agency)

This ZAVIT article was also published in The Jerusalem Post on 12/14/2019.