Israel, like many other countries in the world and the region, is
facing an increasingly serious and pervasive environmental crisis.
Development trends over the past 15 to 20 years have brought
increasing pressure on the country's environment. In almost every
area it is easy to perceive tough problems.
Water sources - streams, rivers and underground aquifers - are
endangered by industrial and municipal sewage. Pollution taints
almost all the country's rivers and streams. In the most densely
populated central coastal region from Tel Aviv to Haifa, the
situation is extremely troublesome as sewage treatment
installations cannot keep pace with the needs of fast-growing
cities and towns.
Disposal of solid waste has become an especially thorny issue.
Today, over 90 percent of the solid waste generated in the country
is buried in primitive landfills. The massive Hiria dump outside
Tel Aviv was recently ordered closed as the height of the mountain
of garbage had become a menace to over-flying flights to and from
Ben-Gurion Airport. Government plans to transfer Tel Aviv's solid
waste to a site outside Beersheba are encountering vociferous
opposition from local residents.
A steep rise in automobile use has brought a sharp increase in air
pollution all around the country and especially near larger urban
centers, such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Vehicular emissions
exacerbate prevailing air pollution problems caused by the coal-
and oil-fired electric power plants located up and down the
Mediterranean coast. And this is only a partial list of the
environmental woes facing the nation.
In the face of such problems, it becomes important to know who is
responsible, what is being done and what can be done to fight
pollution. Government ministries are often hard-pressed to offer
solutions both over the long and short term. Typically they lack
the funding and the personnel necessary to tackle environmental
issues on a systematic basis. Most often, responsibility for
dealing with a wide variety of issues falls on the Environment
Ministry. This ministry is a fairly recent addition to the
government, having been officially established in 1988. Relative to
larger, more established ministries, its mandate is limited, its
budget small and number of personnel modest. At present, this
ministry certainly does not have sufficient resources to
successfully reverse negative trends.
The Role of the Public
The greatest threats to the environment are those facing common
resources, such as public lands, water supplies and air quality.
Where governmental action is inadequate, the public must find ways
to effectively protect these resources. Otherwise, they will
continue to suffer neglect, or worse, abuse by polluters.
As the country becomes more sophisticated with many competing
interests on the national scene, use of the legal system by the
public and its representatives has proven to be a powerful tool for
the protection of the environment.
Because Israel is a common-law country, its court system is based
on adversarial procedure where opposing sides appear before a trial
judge in court. There are no juries and the judges preside both
over the court proceedings and render a verdict. Similar to many
other common-law countries, the legal system is complex and its
rules of procedure often obtuse. Usually, people need the
professional assistance of lawyers to navigate through it
successfully when pressing their claims. Where protection of the
environment is at stake, it is almost always necessary to use
expert scientific opinion as well.
Environmental Law in Israel
Israel possesses a fairly large body of environmental statutes and
regulations. These can be divided generally into two groups. The
first is a group of older statutes based upon tort-nuisance law
provisions, building codes, health codes, and acts relating to the
use of natural resources, such as water or quarrying. At the
beginning of the 1980s, an additional group of statutes was
legislated. Today, this list extends to many new areas, with laws
relating specifically to environmental concerns. Among them are
regulations requiring the carrying out of environmental impact
studies, new anti-pollution provisions to prevent water pollution,
laws and regulations against pollution of the sea from land-based
sources and shipping, regulations against harmful noise, a
recycling law, land-planning statutes for the preservation of
forested areas, and more.
In addition to these laws, new major legislation has been added,
much of it during the last decade, and several existing statutes
have been amended to allow for greater public participation in the
legal process. Public participation under these statutes can take
the form of either criminal or civil prosecutions. Both of these
channels make a wide variety of legal actions available to the
Criminal suits can be filed under the modern version of English
common-law private prosecutions. These prosecutions, once almost a
defunct relic of medieval English common law, have come to form the
backbone of citizen enforcement of environmental regulations in
Israel. Private prosecutions can be filed under the Water Law for
water pollution; under the Act for the Prevention of Pollution of
the Sea from Land-Based Sources for pollution of the sea; under the
Anti-Litter Act for illegal disposal of waste; under the Dangerous
Materials Act for failure to take required precautions with
dangerous substances; and under the Prevention of Environmental
Nuisances Act for illegal air, noise or odor pollution.
By using private prosecutions; individuals or environmental groups
can take action when government authorities fail to act. Private
citizens can file these types of prosecutions for environmental
transgressions that directly affect them and cause them damages.
Several non-profit environmental organizations operating on behalf
of the public have received a more powerful mandate to file private
prosecutions under these same laws. They are not required to show
damages in order to initiate criminal charges, which grants them
special status to protect the public's interest in a clean
The ability of citizens and groups to enforce environmental
regulations in the domain of civil law was bolstered in 1992 with
the passage of the Law for the Prevention of Environmental
Nuisances (Civil Actions) Act. This law was specifically designed
to encourage greater environmental enforcement through the use of
the legal system on the part of the public. It covers a very wide
array of pollution-causing activities, including water pollution,
air pollution, pollution from radiation, etc.
Environmental Advocacy in Practice
The Kishon River is one of the most polluted bodies of water in
Israel. In the last several-kilometer stretch between the river and
the sea, there is almost no life whatsoever to be found. The Kishon
was not always dead. As the third-largest river in Israel, it once
supported a wide variety of aquatic species and other wildlife.
Today, the river is a dangerous chemical stew of raw, untreated
sewage from the City of Haifa, harsh acidic solutions with
extremely high heavy-metal content from industrial effluents,
dangerous levels of ammonia, detergents, benzene derivatives and
other pollutants. Pollution from the river flows out to sea and
abnormally high concentrations of heavy metals have been detected
on the sea bottom several kilometers from the river's mouth in
For over 20 years, government authorities proved unable to stop
industrial polluters from using the Kishon as a convenient place to
dump dangerous effluents. There seemed to be no real reason to
believe that the river would ever be cleaned up.
In the beginning of 1994, Dr. Mouna Noufi, chief scientist from
Adam Teva V'Din - the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED)
- tested effluent from several factory outlets that flowed directly
into the river. The test results showed extreme divergence from
permitted effluent levels for almost all of the factories checked.
When IUED representatives later confronted the industries with the
results, two factories, responsible for a large portion of the
pollution entering the river, showed no willingness to take serious
steps to treat their effluent and stop polluting the river.
The IUED filed criminal suits against these two factories, Haifa
Chemicals and Deshanim Ltd. Two and a half years later, the
lawsuits ended in a court¬approved agreement under which the
factories agreed to install over $17 million worth of
anti-pollution technology and pay close to $1 million in legal
costs and to fund further environmental work on the river over a
four year period. A year and a half has passed since then. The
polluting factories have already spent several million dollars to
develop and install treatment systems for their effluent and are
ahead of the schedules set in the agreements.
Another good example of environmental advocacy in action is the
initiative undertaken to determine the effects of pollutants on
Israel's Mountain Aquifer. The Mountain Aquifer is a cardinal
source of water for both Israelis and Palestinians. Despite this,
not enough research has been carried out to discover the effects of
pollutants on the aquifer. Here too, environmental activists have
taken action. In 1995, IUED hydrologist Dror Avisar, in partnership
with a team of scientists from Bethlehem University, Dr. Alfred
Abed Rabbo and Dr. David Scarpa, began a two-year study of the
aquifer. They conducted water-quality tests for hundreds of wells
in the aquifer, examining many parameters previously unchecked.
Their findings will help both Palestinians and Israelis to better
understand the importance of preserving the purity of this water
Despite the relatively large amount of legislation and the varied
possibilities for environmental enforcement on the part of the
public, most of the public's activities in the field of legal
advocacy for a better environment are confined to opposition and
lawsuits over construction projects. Very few suits, either
criminal or civil, are filed by members of the general public to
prevent pollution. And even where opposition to construction
projects is concerned, people are often daunted by the complexity
of the legal system. Because lawyers are expensive, in many
instances people often feel that they have no viable method of
using the legal system.
Thus, use of the courts is often left solely to environmental
organizations such as the IUED, which has filed the majority of
environmental lawsuits tried in Israel over the past several years.
The record shows that the judiciary is sensitive to environmental
issues and willing to hand down verdicts that halt pollution or
force polluters to take action. There is still a great need to
continue to develop better environmental laws and regulations,
especially those that would allow the public to receive more
information about polluters and pollution threats. It is no less
important to continue to enforce existing laws that force polluters
to pay for their actions. Experience has shown that the public must
be able to enforce its environmental rights and that the court
system is the central arena where this can be achieved.