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ISRAEL: New law hugs trees, bugs contractors

September 10, 2008 | 10:31 am

In a bid to save Israel's trees from increasing construction, a bill is underway to force contractors to plant a tree for every one they cut down. Contractors will be obliged to include in their development plans detailed information about the number and type of trees in the area designation for construction, as well as committing to plans for planting news ones, as a condition for receiving building permits. Trees will be cut down only where preservation or relocation are not possible.

The law, put forth by member of knesset Ophir Pines, is aimed at addressing both global warming issues as well as local urban aesthetics. "It is important to maintain a balance between the welcome development in Israel and preserving natural and environmental values, so that we don't wake up one morning and find ourselves surrounded only by blocks of concrete," he said after the bill passed a preliminary reading in the legislature this week.

Gathsemane2The ministry of agriculture is also trying to increase enforcement, refreshing procedures and pushing to increase the fines for illegal felling, currently 1,000 NIS (about $278).

Most of Israel's trees -- 68 species including oak, olive, eucalyptus, cherub, palm, and kasuarina -- are protected by the Forestry Act and law. Cutting down trees in Israel requires a permit from the JNF (Jewish national fund), the custodian of the nation's forests, except in the three largest cities where municipal authorities have specially designated officials authorized review requests. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 4,000 requests are filed every year by private and public bodies; 1,200 of these ask to cut down protected trees. The JNF approves the majority.

Olive2An inter-organizational team including government, JNF foresters and botanists, historic site conservationists and volunteers spent 15 years collecting data about 1,500 special mature trees throughout the country. Besides their age, most trees are unique in historic importance, religious significance, appearance and rarity. The oldest tree on the list is a 1,500 year old  Ziziphus spina-christi that grows by the side of a spring in the Arava desert. The tree's common name is "Christ's Thorn Jujube," as tradition maintains Jesus' crown of thorns were made of its branches. Compared to it, the Baobab planted in Kibbutz Ein Gedi in 1960 is a mere babe but its immense girth won it a place on the list. With a trunk circumference of 8.5 meters, it's little wonder that Antoine de Saint-Exupery had his Petite Prince pull out Baobabs for fear they would split his little planet.

Oak1_2  Oak4_2 Oak3

Special efforts are made to conserve special trees, such as in the city of Holon a few years ago. Nearly six months of preparation, engineering and agronomic know-how were invested in moving a 12-meter-high, 300-year-old Sycamore 100 meters to make way for a new highway.

When the National Parks Law was first discussed in parliament in 1962, David Ben-Gurion said nothing can replace a 70-year-old tree and that no useful new structure could come in its place. "Destroying such a tree is to pull up human roots," he said. "No building or electricity is more important than a thick eucalyptus, an old sycamore, an oak woods. These are roots of man."

— Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Photos: Top: Ancient olive trees at the garden of Gethsemane. Some believe these may be 2,000 years old; scientists concede they are at least centuries old.

Middle: JNF expert Suheil Zidan stands inside a 500-year-old olive tree with a 4-meter trunk circumference by Kibbutz Tzuba.

Bottom: An ancient oak rehabilitated on an orthopedic crutch. According to local tradition, cleansing rituals were performed under the 500-year-old tree before burial in a nearby Muslim cemetery near the site of today's Kibbutz Tzuba.

Click to enlarge.

Photos by Batsheva Sobelman / Los Angeles Times

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates," and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.

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