Omar Tadmor and Max Kaplan-Zantopp

The Environmental Cost of Israel’s Wars

May 7, 2021

Since Israel’s declared statehood, the journey to securing its national sovereignty has by no mean been a cakewalk considering the many military conflicts it has had with neighboring countries. But how have military clashes impacted Israel’s environment?

It’s no surprise to learn that Israel has had a historically contentious relationship with its Middle Eastern neighbors. In fact, the country has had to take military action to defend itself in every decade since Israel’s establishment in 1948.

After eight recognized wars, two attempted Palestinian insurrections, and a series of armed conflicts with the Arab nations, factual data and analytical information about those disputes like operation details, casualty counts, and the fluctuating political chain of events, are not particularly difficult to find.

As the battleground for said conflicts, what kind of toll have Israel’s environment and heritage sites taken? This is important because understanding the environmental cost of past war efforts gives us a glimpse into what to environmental expectations we should have if conflicts such as this continue to occur.

Upheaving Terrain

Bental, Merom Golan, Israel. Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash.

There is no doubt that the wars in Israel left their marks on both the land and ancient antiquity sites that adorn the country’s landscapes from the Golan Heights to Eilat. According to geomorphologist Dr. Yoel Roskin, Director of the Laboratory for Geomorphology and Portable Luminescence at the University of Haifa and former senior field research officer in the IDF, most of the damage in Israel is the result of walls, fences, and border crossings and not necessarily from the fighting itself.

“During the Yom Kippur War, building barbed wire, outposts, and fences on the Bar-Lev Line affected the environment as it created waste,” he says. “In the 1990s, the removal of huge amounts of rock and the lifting of huge embankments on the Egyptian side of fence generated significant amounts of waste onto the environment. And between 2010 and 2013, Israel built a new fence that affected the environment similarly but also prevented animals who inhabited the region to cross it.”

Roskin also describes the separation fence in Judea and Samaria and along the Lebanese border as a landscape hazard, which is a problematic buffer for the wildlife in the area. Unlike the Israelis, the Lebanese allow hunting in their territory, and due to the fence, animals cannot escape to the south.

In terms of combat-related damages, militaristic campaigns against Hamas within Israel’s agricultural periphery of Gaza during the Second Intifada also significantly impacted the natural terrain of the environment. During the winter rainy season, armored tracked vehicles and large spare parts made of tin often reportedly sank in the muddy terrain, and they were later found to have altered the topography and soil drainage patterns. Roskin noted the difficulty surrounding their removal.

Fortifying Ancient Sites

Yehi’am Fortress National Park. Photo by Mark Luko on Flickr.

Dr. Yossi Bordovich, head of the Heritage Department at the Nature and Parks Authority, cites several examples of damage to archeological sites brought about by military clashes.

“During the War of Independence, firing positions and trenches were built around the Yehi’am Fortress in the northern Galilee,” he says. “It is clear that this changed the nature of the site, and this is just one example. Any stone structure that could have been fortified, even if it was ancient, immediately became a military post.”

Digging trenches is another common operation affecting archaeologically significant sites in places like Tel Kedesh and Susita in the north. “During the excavation of trenches, the penetration into archeological strata is evident in almost every site within Israel’s boundaries,” says Bordovich.

On the other side of this coin, however, these excavation measures became useful for animals. “For example, in Qasr el Yahud on the banks of the Jordan River, many of the trenches have become habitats and nests for bats,” he adds.

This is compounded by the fact that Israeli conflicts mainly took place in remote areas relatively far from populated centers, which made natural rehabilitation both rather quick. But this was also partially due to the less destructive weaponry Israel and its enemies were using compared to other unrelated wars outside of the country.

“In the Golan Heights, for example, the effects of the wars are not seen on the ground per say,” says Roskin. “In Europe, there are huge fields of craters that were created by bombs during the world wars. Here we have ‘finer’ wars in a sense.”

Dangerous ‘Nature Reserves’

Photo by Sam Dosick on Flickr.

The extensive closures of territories in Israel to the public sometimes results in the preservation of nature. “In the Jordan Valley, for example, there are certain areas that are publicly restricted, which has inadvertently led to a kind of ‘nature reserve’ being created,” says Roskin.

Abandoned minefields in Israel also similarly reflect this occurrence. According to the Ministry of Defense, there are 200,000 dunams (around 50,000 acres) of minefields in Israel where half of that area is deemed essential for national security purposes, whereas the other half is defined as non-essential. Although mines pose an obvious and clear risk to human life, they deter and exclude human presence from the area, giving rise to de facto nature reserves.

But there is still cause for concern as the head of the Defense Ministry’s Information and Management Division explained in an interview with Israel’s N12 news company, “It would be true to say that as a mine ages, it becomes more and more sensitive. It is also true to say that, over time, some of the mines won’t work due to weather damage, but most of them are still very dangerous.”

Monitor Collateral Damage

Even when conflicts are smaller in scale, the impact of the defense system and its activity is evident in Israel’s soil and ecology. Recently, the State Comptroller published a report that views the IDF’s training areas on land, which among other things, criticized the damage and lack of restoration to training areas and several sites of antiquity in the north.

“It is important to have control over IDF activity—to have a body that monitors and surveys its territories while gathering research that takes into account the impact the military has on the environment in which its operating,” says Roskin. “As far as I know, there is no body that does this on a comprehensive level.” At the end of the day, protecting against hostile threats and incursions is of course the top priority when it comes to defending Israel’s national security. However, it is still important to be aware of the collateral damage war contributes to our environment so that restoration efforts can be best directed and efficiently performed should such conflicts arise again.

This ZAVIT Article was also published in The Jewish Journal on 6 May 2021