Suddenly, everyone is concerned about the environment. Knesset members, local authority heads and even corporate managers are scrambling to be seen to be protecting the country's deteriorating land reserves, water sources, and air quality while worrying about electromagnetic fields. They are reacting to an increased public perception that we're trashing our homeland. Environmental interest groups are playing a pivotal role in this mindset shift. Increased media attention is merely a reflection of this new national priority. Since the Maccabiah disaster in 1997 when four Australians died after plummeting from a collapsed bridge into the contaminated Yarkon River, few Israelis remain blissfully unaware of how we've fouled practically every natural water source with industrial effluents and sewage. It's reached the stage where, according to an environmental study presented to President Moshe Katsav two weeks ago, Israelis so distrust the integrity of tap water that 72 percent of the population drinks bottled water. The same study pointed to growing concerns about electromagnetic radiation from the hundreds of cellular telephone antennas around the country, soil drenched in herbicides and city air heavy in small-particle pollution. In the past, Israeli politicians at all levels too often paid lip service to environmental concerns while bowing to the needs of large economic bodies such as cellular telephone companies, bus line operators and the Israel Electric Company. As Herzliya mayor Yael German put it during a recent radio debate on the cellular antenna issue, "We fell asleep on guard duty." Until recently, the pace of environmental legislation was slow and the scope of environmental laws limited. The Knesset's performance on environmental issues was lackluster at best. Now a growing number of MKs across the political spectrum are showing a new commitment to the environment. For all his alleged misdemeanors, Omri Sharon deserves kudos for his commitment as head of the outgoing Knesset's environmental lobby. As the legislative arm of government, the Knesset can play a key role in preventing further environmental degradation. The 16th Knesset approved a series of environmentally important bills. Last summer, the Knesset passed the Coastline Protection Law that dictates that there can be no major construction within 300 meters of the shoreline in areas where the coast does not belong to a municipality. The widely-reported Cellular Antenna Law passed in December ended the insufferable situation whereby municipalities had no authority over the placement of purportedly dangerous antennas. Cellular companies will now have to advise the public of new antennas, and municipal authorities will have the authority to forbid their installation. The law is aimed at protecting the public from adverse impacts of exposure to non-ionizing radiation from cellular antennas, radio antennas, high-tension lines, electric installations and lasers. LESS MEDIA attention was allotted to the Clean Air Act that, in one of the outgoing Knesset's last orders of business before dispersing on December 21, passed its First Reading in the plenary. Lawyer Tzipi Iser Itzik, Executive Director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED - Adam, Teva, V'Din) that helped draft the bill, put it into perspective: "This is a milestone in environmental governance in Israel and a great day for the future health of the nation," she said. Under the proposed law, the Environment Ministry will lay down environmental standards for all pollutants and enact a national air pollution reduction plan within two years. The country will have a new regulatory framework for setting stationary and ambient emission standards, and the public will be able to file class action suits against polluters. Enforcement procedures and penalty frameworks will be concentrated under one statutory body. With environmental awareness now considered a vote-catcher, the 17th Knesset will surely approve the proposal's second and third readings. The importance of this step cannot be understated. According to the environment ministry and the IUED, residents of Tel-Aviv-Jaffa suffer the third worst air pollution among European cities (behind Bucharest and Athens). An average of 1,100 people die each year in the Dan region from complications due to air pollution, and one Tel Aviv child in five suffers from breathing difficulties. Of course, a law is not worth the paper it's written on unless effectively enforced. The Can and Bottle Deposit Law has been a failure since its inception in October 2001 (eight years after it was first proposed as a private member's bill), because the mechanisms were not in place. The failure-prone bottle collection machines in supermarkets turned recycling into a cumbersome chore that few have the patience for. Most bottles are still not recycled. MY UNFORTUNATE observation is that the most efficient way to deter the polluters is through their pockets. In this respect, there is room for optimism. Until recently, the only fines issued by Israeli courts for environmental damage were to a handful of building contractors caught stealing sand from Mediterranean beaches, but in 2005 a series of heavy fines were imposed on environmental polluters. These are but a few examples:
Haifa Chemicals was penalized $125,000 by Krayot (Haifa) Magistrates Court for polluting the Kishon River, in a case brought by the Environment Ministry.
Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court imposed a NIS 140,000 fine on the operators of an illegal gas station in Ramat Hasharon that lacked facilities to prevent fuel leaks and groundwater pollution.
Another court penalized four defendants NIS 95,000 fine for illegally disposing construction and demolition waste in the Petah Tikva area.
Kiryat Shmona Magistrate's court slapped a NIS 150,000 fine on Kibbutz Dafna for allowing its cowsheds' waste to discharge polluted leachates into nearby rivers, and from there to the Jordan River and the Kinneret.
Sustained public scrutiny will be necessary if such punishments eventually prove effective.
The environment recognizes no borders, and the issue is, by definition, bipartisan. Palestinian society is not yet ripe to internalize the environmentalist paradigm and change the way they live.
We Israelis have no such excuse.
As the Post's esteemed late nature writer D'vora Ben-Shaul once put it, "What's the point in arguing over the land while we're destroying it?'
The writer is editor of the Post's Metro magazine.