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ISRAEL: How green is my army?

October 20, 2008 | 10:25 am

It's early in the morning and the young guys learn about the desert ecosystem and the sex life of porcupines. They might be biology majors on a field trip but they're carrying guns: meet Company B of the next generation of IDF officers, in environmental training.

The Israeli army lost large parts of its stomping grounds when Sinai was returned to Egypt but it's got to  train somewhere. Many army bases, including the officers' school of Bahad Ehad, are located in the southern Negev desert constituting 60% of the country's territory.

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Fifty percent of the Negev is fire zones, 20% nature reserves. Another 20% overlap (the other 10% is residential/infrastructure). All army activity in the overlaps must be coordinated between liaison officers and park rangers assigned to the area.

But coordinated moves harm the environment too and training attempts to raise awareness, especially among officers who serve as role-models.

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Regev Manor is a cheerful young instructor from Israel's Nature and National Parks Authority. Leading the cadets through the now-dry bed of the seasonal river Nahal Hemet, his maps illustrate the problem: dark orange areas indicate fire zones, green areas indicate nature reserves. Nahal Hemet, for starters, overlaps in part with fire zone #624.

In the desert, water management is key. The top ground layer, a crust a few millimeters deep, is made of a small part of fine soil and around 70% microscopic, photosynthesizing algae. The layer seals and the water runs off it and into the desert channels, feeding the entire ecosystem.

"Now imagine what a 65-ton tank does to this," says First Lt. Max Kopichinski, who commands a team of cadets.

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Tank chains and vehicle tires impress the ground, leaving ruts called "kolisim" in Hebrew. Nothing grows in the ruts where the crust has been damaged, and the life system built around it dies. Diverted waters flood carefully positioned animal burrows. 

"A single stone moved from its place has a tremendous impact on millions of things," Manor says. "On a large scale, this is devastating."

And thousands of dunams of delicate desert life have been pummeled into a fine powder. The area of Shizafon, for example, is essentially dead. Nothing will grow where the infamous "pudra" can be half a meter deep. The army tries to contain training to the damaged areas and minimize further damage by transporting tanks on carriers when possible. In other areas, park rangers comb over the top soil with rakes to restore its original level.

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Max has spent his 3 1/2 years in the army as soldier and officer in the desert. "It's an amazing place," he says. The only time he left the desert was two summers ago, when mobilized up north for the second Lebanon war. "When we got there, everything was green and beautiful. Within weeks, the tanks had destroyed everything."

But it's not only heavy armored vehicles that leave trails. Soldiers leave a by-trail of stuff from spent ammunition and scrap metal to food and toilet paper. (No cigarettes or gum, though. Max has his soldiers stick these in their bootlaces and march 'em back to base.)

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The desert hosts a wealth of wildlife including foxes, wolves, sand rats and crested porcupines. Foxes have been known to run off with knapsacks, so soldiers are forbidden to carry any food in their personal bags. They bolt garbage containers with metal spikes, or concentrate it in one place and secure it with barbed wire until it's collected later.

Other encounters end badly. The Oryx, a kind of antilope reintroduced to the Negev a few years ago, is drawn to white things, including the small parachutes attached to flares that can suffocate them. Birds of prey try to feed their young anything from shrapnel to army meal packaging, mistaking them for bones containing calcium. Park rangers set up feeding stations for birds to keep them away from leftovers and have handed out hundreds of garbage bags during large-scale military drills.

Five years ago, the state comptroller issued a scathing report on the army's blunt disregard for the environment and contamination of the country's resources. The army began cleaning up its act and last year received an environmental award, but there's still a long way to go.

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So while big issues such as water conservation, noisy and noxious generators and insulating fuel and oil reserves are addressed on organizational levels, the army educates to environmental care from the bottom up. At the beginning of the officers' course, the cadets hear a lecture from a park ranger about the trail of garbage they leave behind. Later they get the field version, the hands-on on the hands-off nature, and cards identifying them as nature-respecting officers and free passes to all national parks and nature reserves.

Captain Tomer Jorno, commanding officer of Company B, sits in his office where maps hang alongside Israel's Proclamation of Independence. This is where things meet for the army, and the training is another component of the values they seek in officers. "Respect for the land helps officers connect to their job. The training enriches them and educates them to values, but it also provides another means for sharpening their perception of their responsibilities. There are many ways of preparing them for their future assignments," says Jorno, "not only active operational duty in Hebron. This educates them to the same values from another angle."

"No one expects you to build recycling bins and clean up every river-bed during night-time navigations," a realistic Regev Manor tells the soldiers at the end of the 7-kilometer trail. "Respect yourselves and the environment too and your soldiers will respect you the more for it. Pass this on to your soldiers as officers, and that's a good start."

-- Batsheva Sobelman.

Pictures: Batsheva Sobelman / Los Angeles Times. Click to enlarge.

P.S. -- See how green your army is here.

P.P.S. Get news from the Middle East in your mailbox every day. The Los Angeles Times distributes 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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