No more shade in Nahariya

Why are trees being brutally chopped in Nahariya? Is it the only town in Israel with 'dangerous' trees?

tree chop 224.88 (photo credit: Diana Bletter)
tree chop 224.88
(photo credit: Diana Bletter)
Officials in the Nahariya Municipality say that they are working hard to preserve the city's trees, but local environmental activists insist that the city continues to systematically cut trees down to stumps or trim their branches so radically that the trees will not recover. "In the past 17 years, thousands of trees have been cut down in Nahariya," Orit Reich, director of the Association for the Quality of Life and Environment in Nahariya, told Metro. "[This] used to be known as a green city, but the trees that are left have few leaves and provide no shade." This August and September there was a wave of tree cutting that Arie Eshet, Carmel and Western Galilee Regional Director for the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet), said went "beyond all boundaries." Dozens of large ficus trees in the heart of the city, some over 50 years old, were reduced to two-meter-high stumps. The cutting was so brutal that it sparked the formation of the city's first branch of the Israeli Green Party, whose members plan to run for city council seats in November 2008. "We're trying as hard as we can to stop the city from damaging trees," said Nahariya Green Party head Eyal Viser. Nahariya Mayor Jackie Sabag said in September that he was shocked by how the trees were being cut. He stated that an independent contractor had razed the trees and that the municipality had filed a complaint with the police. But Viser said that his party was collecting data about the trees' destruction and was considering suing the city for negligence. He said that the while the contractor had cut down the trees, "someone in City Hall hired him." The mayor, meanwhile, has promised stronger cooperation between Nahariya's city hall and the JNF, the organization responsible for protecting the nation's trees. But environmentalists say that the city continues to aggressively cut down trees. Some say that when the price of heating oil rose, the price of wood also increased, thus making wood from trees more valuable. The trees in the city center were cut down in the middle of the night. Activists believe that the contractor then sold the wood. The Nahariya Green Party has swung into action, setting up a volunteer patrol to make sure the city's trees are not cut down illegally. Whenever workers - both independent contractors and municipal employees, are spotted cutting down trees, volunteers ask to see permits and immediately call the police. "In [other] cities around the world, officials try to protect trees for the betterment of their city," Reich said. "But in Nahariya, city officials work hard to cut them down." Shoshana Kopans, who was hired by the city in November to serve as a liaison between the Sanitation Department and the JNF, responded by saying, "We live in a city and trees can be a public nuisance to people." She said that when tree growth interfered with public safety - such as branches becoming entangled with power lines or roots penetrating the sewage system - she requested permission from the JNF to trim them or cut them down. But critics point out that some of the trees that have been radically cut are nowhere near any utility lines. They also say that the trees are not trimmed by tree surgeons, but rather by non-professionals who trim the branches so extensively that there is little chance the trees will ever grow again. "I came to school this past September and was shocked at how many trees had been razed to the ground," said Tom Fisher, a 12th-grader at Amal High School in Nahariya. "They were huge trees that used to provide shade for at least 50 students - we always sat under them, and now they're gone." Amal Principal Yossi Zigalman said he had never asked that the trees be cut. However, the school grounds belong to Nahariya and therefore fall under municipal jurisdiction. "They could have just trimmed [them,]" Zigalman said. "I don't know why they cut them down." City officials responded that, unfortunately, the trees had been cut down without permits, and it would not happen again. There is a list of trees in Israel that are protected from being trimmed or cut. This list, however, was written in 1926 during the British Mandate and has never been updated. Many trees fall outside its protection, such as certain types of ficus. Trees that might be candidates for preservation fall outside the list's purview, and the JNF can do nothing to shield them from the axe. Green Party volunteers say that they have to be vigilant because the city pressures its residents to cut trees. Branches that hang over sidewalks are considered, according to official policy statements, "invasive." Nahariya locals have received letters instructing them to cut back overhanging branches. Should they not comply within a week, residents are warned, they will be fined. "There was a beautiful tree with purple blossoms [on our street] that had a branch hanging over the sidewalk," Nahariya resident Maya Avinun recalls. "It provided shade for pedestrians and people liked to park their cars under it." She said that the city contacted board members of the apartment building on whose property the tree stood, informing them that the branches interfered with power lines and needed to be cut. "But the tree's branches were far from the power lines," Avinun said. She added that there was no proof that the electric company had reported any such interference to city hall. A week ago, Avinun related, she saw workers cutting off the tree's branches. When she asked if they had permits, they replied that they did not. A JNF official said the tree was not on the protected list and, therefore, nothing could be done. When Avinun contacted city hall officials, they informed her that "even though there were no permits, it was okay to cut down the tree." Kopans said that illegal tree cutting has stopped, and that city hall won't cut any trees down unless it obtains permission from the JNF. "Trees are important," she said, "but we have to give people security. A branch might be in danger of falling." Activists point out that the care of trees in Nahariya falls to the Sanitation Department's jurisdiction. In other cities, tree preservation is the responsibility of their Parks Departments. Reich called Kopans' warning of possible falling branches absurd. "There are hundreds of tall trees in Jerusalem and Haifa, and the cities find ways to preserve them or trim them professionally," she pointed out. While city officials say that 15,000 trees and bushes have recently been planted, critics maintain that few of those plantings are large shade trees. "Nahariya has children's parks without one tree in them," Reich said. "The schools no longer have no trees. There is no shade left." Lawsuits abound? A Keren Kayemet official, who asked to remain anonymous, has informed Metro that there are currently numerous criminal complaints filed by Keren Kayemet against Samir Nis and his cousin, Noor, for alleged illegal tree cutting in Nahariya. The unnamed official also said that there will likely be more criminal complaints filed against Samir Nis (and perhaps Noor) under suspicion that he cut down the trees and then illegally sold the wood. Meanwhile, Nahariya residents say that Nis continues to work in Nahariya's public grounds, despite the fact that municipal officials say that the municipality no longer works with him. Residents also say that the contractor continues to cut down trees without permits and that the municipality does not stop him. Response from private contractor and Nahariya Municipality Noor Nis, from the village of Mazra'a, worked cutting down and trimming trees as a private contractor for the Nahariya Municipality. Nis told Metro that he stopped working for the Nahariya Municipality three years ago. When asked why he stopped working, Nis replied that there were "all sorts of problems," alluding to complaints from residents of the city. Nis said that during his time working for the city, every tree he handled "was authorized" by the municipality to be cut down, and that he would never cut down a tree without proper authorization. "[The municipality] called me recently to come remove a couple of branches, but I didn't do it," he said. And what did Nis do with the chopped wood? "We would throw it in the local garbage dump," he said. The Nahariya Municipality said in response that it was taking action against those responsible for illegally cutting down trees, and has even filed a complaint with the police. "As far as we know," replied a municipality spokesperson in a letter, "the subject is still being addressed through legal channels, and therefore we can't supply further details." The municipality declined to comment to Metro's inquiry regarding Nis's current status as a private contractor. Oren Klass contributed to this report