Israeli environmental efforts helped produce peace

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Long before any Israel-Jordan peace agreements were under way, Hellman said, Jordan's King Hussein was complaining about swarms of flies buzzing across the narrow Red Sea gulf from Eilat in Israel to Jordan's Aqaba. Meanwhile, Hellman said, Israelis were concerned about the number of pigeons flying from Aqaba to Eilat.

So Israel and Jordan worked quietly to solve the environmental problems, in an early example of Israeli-Jordanian cooperation. To this day the details of their solutions remain secret.

Hellman, a former chief minority counsel for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a devout Christian, helped develop Israel's Soil Conservation Service and National Water Plan.

What Hellman discovered it that Israel is more advanced than the United States when it comes to environmental law.

"Israel has a Department of Environment, which the United States doesn't have yet," he said. And unlike the United States, "Israel's environmental record is absolutely remarkable."

Hellman had a bird's eye view of Israel's environmental track record: He served four years as an environmental consultant for Israel, sat on the Jerusalem Planning Commission and helped the nation write environmental protection laws.

In 1976, Hellman said, Israel was considered a developing country that qualified for U.S. aid. Yet today, Israel ranks among the world's top 20 nations in its standard of living, economic development, environmental protection and air- and water-pollution control.

Israel's high environmental protection marks are the result of specific strategies. Trees — planted in the millions since Israel's inception — have transformed the naturally arid climate in addition to halting erosion by helping the hills hold water.

A poster drive and education campaign have trained Israeli children and adults to admire — but not pick — the country's profuse wildflowers. Other campaigns have aimed at preserving birds and animals mentioned in the Bible, including hyenas, jackals, leopards, foxes and wolves.

In addition, Israel Air Force pilots have flown to Ethiopia and Iran, where they rescued rare animals — such as ibexes (mountain goats with horns) — and then placed them in Israeli nature reserves, provided breeding stock for species decimated by overhunting or war.

Nearly every roof in Israel has flat solar panels that collect much of the energy needed for heating. Wind farms in the Golan Heights also generate safe energy. In an extremely dry area, special drip irrigation methods conserve water and farmers raise drought-resistant plants that thrive on brackish water.

In the Middle East, political and environmental issues continuously cross paths. Hellman said it is a little-known fact that even during the intifada, Israel's intense environmental education program continued.

"More than 30,000 Arab principals and teachers — from Gaza and the territories — were taught by Israel to preserve trees, conserve water and share the land and its diminishing water base. The concept of preserving a resource base for future generations is fully practiced in Israel."

Although Israel's neighbors pledged at the 1972 Stockholm Conference to protect the environment, Hellman cited several examples of "environmental terrorism." For instance, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein waged biological and chemical warfare, set oilfields afire, poured oil into the gulf — thus wiping out species of marine creatures — and dumped chemicals in the desert, decimating animal habitats.

After the arson fire that burned down Israel's 150-year-old trees on the "Little Switzerland on the Carmel" mountain range near Haifa, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat applauded the destruction.

"I have a copy of Arafat's letter in which he [wrote], `Burn their forests, burn everything for Allah and Palestine,'" Hellman said.

He questioned whether the new Palestinian Authority will protect the region's environment. He also described the Jordan River's falling water table, and questioned whether political solutions are likely to emerge from the resultant water shortage.

"When the Middle East nations decide to cooperate," he said, "then we can talk about sharing the abundant waters from the Nile and from Turkey, Syria and Lebanon."