Background on Environmental Issues
NATURE AND ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION IN THE HOLY LAND
In prehistoric times, the Holy Land harbored an abundance of rich fauna including ostriches, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, spotted hyenas, and even elephants. Most of these were lost before recorded historical times. The scale of environmental destruction and deforestation increased at the turn of the twentieth century. For example, the Turkish army destroyed much of the forests in Jordan to construct the Hijaz railroad and fuel itís locomotives. In the Holy Land, the preservation of habitats and nature took a distant back seat to establishing new Israeli settlements and to the numerous political and economic disruptions that followed. Although many settlements were on previously inhabited areas, many others had to be established in previously unsettled land which was then cleared for agriculture and settlement. Large scale irrigation and the use of large areas by the expanding army left few places undamaged.
Jordan in the 1950s and 1960s did not fare any better in conservation than Palestine of that period. The war of 1948 and the establishment of the state of Israel resulted in burdening Jordan with a large population of refugees and massive economic troubles. The creation of many Palestinian refugee camps contributed to the decline of the environment by clearing many previously uninhabited areas in a situation similar to that seen for some of the Jewish settlements. Again the economic and political situation was such that conservation issues were not addressed in a timely fashion.
Countries in the region have institutions designated to protect nature but slowing down the pace of environmental destruction is many timees secondary to olitical and narrow short-term economic interests. Proposed protected areas if enacted in all countries could result in the protection of over 5% of the Holy Land. However, wildlife destruction continues though at a decelerated pace. Areas of needed improvements are numerous. First and most obvious is the need of adequate education in conservation issues. Second, considerable economic factors result in the allocation of minimal funds for natural resources especially in Jordan. Although this is a problem shared by many third world countries, it is exacerbated in the Middle East because of the almost continuous war effort. Third, overpopulation results in habitat destruction and more illegal hunting.
An example of previous ecological disasters can be cited with regard to the decline of insectivorous bats. A campaign for the destruction of fruit bats was started in Israel in 1958. Many caves were sealed and fumigated with ethylene dibromide and later (beginning in 1982) with lindane (Hexachlorobenzene) by Israeli farmers and agricultural organizations. Lindane is a an organochloride similar to PCB, DDT and other chemicals that linger and accumulate in the food web. Specifically targeted by these fumigations was the fruit bat. However, the smaller and more numerous insect eating bats were more vulnerable than were the target animals. These are very useful animals because of their consumption of huge amounts of harmful insects and their deposition of guano (bat feces) which is a very valuable fertilizer.
Human population explosion, habitat destruction, and mistakes of human interference in nature are problems found worldwide. Few ecological dangers seem more exasperated in the Near East. The almost constant military conflicts make habitat destruction much more dramatic. Sophisticated war machinery makes obliterating fragile habitats much easier. It is encouraging that the Palestinians started to organize nature protection activities even before self-rule was established. A group calling itself "Children for the Protection of Nature" is already active in over 70 schools (as of 1996). The Palestinian National Authority has also shown interest in establishing nature reserves and enacting laws to protect natural resources. Again the major problem is lack of funding.
More people of all races and religions from the region have come to realize the importance of preserving the land and the wildlife. It is now very clear that, regardless of how long it takes to resolve political conflicts, future generations of all inhabitants will have to live in this area and they cannot live on a barren desert created by their ancestors. We should learn from our past errors and move forward to conserve what remains of the magnificent life in the cradle of civilizations and the land that is Holy to the three monotheistic religions. Within this generation lies the key to the future quality of life in the Holy Land. We would greatly appreciate your help.