The IDF’s green revolution

Head of IDF's Environmental Protection Division Lt.-Col. Eli Paz says army can protect both national security and the earth.

IDF's Givati Brigade excercise 370 (photo credit: IDF Spokesman's Office)
IDF's Givati Brigade excercise 370
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman's Office)
It was Lt.-Col. Eli Paz’s last two hours in military service.
The 45-year-old father of three just completed a fouryear stint last week as head of the newly created Environmental Protection Division – a part of the Technology and Logistics Branch – and retired to pursue academic studies in the US.
With boundless energy, Paz bounced around the room, projecting slides and pointing to various figures, as he told his remarkable story of how the IDF became conscious of the need to protect the environment under his watch.
The story of the division began in 2004, when the IDF received a scathing report from the State Comptroller’s Office, accusing it of being the country’s single biggest polluter. In light of the fact that the military controls 60 percent of state land, that accusation was very grave.
The report detailed environmental offenses on a range of levels across the country.
“The army didn’t have a systematic plan to deal with its environmental needs,” Paz told The Jerusalem Post last week. Four years later, Defense Minister Ehud Barak produced a decree ordering the creation of the division.
The IDF searched for an officer to lead it, and locked in on Paz, who at that time was head of fuel services, and had been pioneering ways to refuel vehicles without spillages.
Paz, who has a PhD in environmental protection, seemed like the natural choice.
Despite the appointment, “We had no money, and no mission,” Paz recalled. “I was amazed by how far behind we were compared to European armies, or the US military.”
The first thing Paz did was launch an intensive study of what modern Western militaries do to protect their environments.
He created a research body that routinely observes progress in this field around the world, and releases detailed reports. The body also reports on population density, water quality, climate change and waste management in Israel.
Next, he set up an environmental protection school to train commanders and non-commissioned officers. He ensured he received powers to inspect and investigate those who fall foul of the policies he was promoting.
But even as he laid down the building blocks for the new division, a year into his project, Paz realized he wouldn’t get very far without the compliance of military brass. He found himself running into a wall of apathy.
“I was told, ‘leave me alone, this is the last thing on my priority list,’” Paz said of one conversation he had with a senior officer.
Preoccupied with planning operations and preparing for wars, major-generals made no attempt to hide their lack of enthusiasm.
In 2009, a breakthrough came, when the IDF came under pressure to clean up its act, literally. Gilad Erdan, the new environmental protection minister, began personally penalizing major-generals for pollution offenses, while green organizations launched a high-profile campaign against the army. The press followed suit, reporting on spills and acts of negligence.
“I was called into the bureau of former chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, and asked what the army should do,” Paz said.
After laying out his vision, Paz was given a budget of NIS 1 billion for 15 years, and Ashkenazi threw his full weight behind the division.
That development has already saved the army hundreds of millions of shekels, Paz maintained.
“Every year, we were spending NIS 600 million a year on electricity, NIS 80m. for waste removal, and NIS 50m. on water,” he noted.
Paz began mapping out past pollution problems, formulated plans to prevent future pollution, and launched an awareness campaign among commanders and officers.
With most IDF bases constructed during the pre-1948 British mandate, some 160 of them are still not connected to sewage systems, and do not recycle their sewage. Instead, the sewage is dropped in cesspools, damaging the soil.
Paz’s solutions were to biologically treat sewage in containers, or suck out the water waste, or create wetland ecosystems to deal with the water. All three are being implemented today.
He closed 120 gas stations that failed to meet environmental standards, and launched inspections of bases to force them to recycle waste and save on water and electricity.
Paz initiated bio-treatment projects, installed solar systems for electricity production, and built sun-heated water tanks. He instituted new vehicle refueling techniques to avoid spillages.
Today, the IDF uses 30 percent less water than it did in 2008. It runs programs to protect the natural habitats it trains in. And it is building hybrid generators for energyefficient power production.
Oil is recycled, and asbestos is being removed from old armored personnel carriers.
“We haven’t treated these things for 60 years,” Paz said.
“Now, every commander gets a booklet with instructions on how to carry out our policies.
The IDF must comply with the division’s vision and policies,” he added.
“We will continue to pollute, as long as the IDF exists, trains and protects the country,” Paz said. “A fighter jet burns up 20,000 liters of fuel on every flight, including during training. But it is possible to safeguard the homeland, while looking out for the environment.”
Today, he added, the IDF is catching up quickly.
“There are sole areas I’m ahead in compared to other armies. In others, we will catch up in three to four years,” he said. Within half a decade, he vowed, the IDF will be a leader in the field.
As he walked out of his office for the last time, Paz turned off the lights. Soon, he will be in the US for a postdoctoral program on environmental protection.
Paz’s message to his successor is simple: “I built you a car, piece by piece. Drive it forward.”