Jewish National Fund (JNF-USA) is probably best known for trees – after all, JNF has planted 260 million trees throughout Israel over the last 116 years. However, many people remain unfamiliar with JNF’s long history of accomplishments in developing the land of Israel and its vision to build and revitalize the Negev and Galilee. While JNF’s work continues to evolve and adapt as new necessities arise throughout the country, it remains undisputedly the largest environmental organization in Israel, and its environmental work acts as a catalyst in community building and even in facilitating and fostering coexistence among neighbors.
One of JNF’s greatest achievements in community building through environmental work can be seen in the city of Be’er Sheva, the capital of the Negev Desert.
The Be’er Sheva River Park and the popular River Walk surrounding it have become an integral part of this sprawling desert city. Residents and visitors alike flock to the Danielle A. and Irving J. Grossman Jewish National Fund Amphitheater for big-name concerts and events. Families gather on weekends to picnic at Bell Park or barbecue on the banks of the river. And then there’s the excitement over what will be Israel’s largest man-made, recycled water lake within the park, and the beautiful residential area that will sit on its banks.
A few decades ago, one would have been hard-pressed to find any semblance of greenery, not just in Be’er Sheva, but in many industrialized Israeli cities. With the fledgling state’s focus on rapid development in the 1950s and 1960s, waterways and rivers throughout Israel were seen as sources for urban and industrial needs, not as natural resources and ecosystems in need of protection and preservation, and became conduits for municipal sewage and repositories for garbage and refuse.
“As a child, I remember the river was full of trash and basically a giant dump,” recalled Be’er Sheva native Anat Haliva-Nachshon, 40. “During the winter, the water would rise, flooding and cutting off the Neve Noi neighborhood from the rest of the city with disgusting, smelly water. The Be’er Sheva River was a place we weren’t proud of; no one wanted to invest in cleaning it up.”
Dvora Zak, 35, also grew up in Be’er Sheva and was warned to stay away from the river. “The river was in such bad shape that it was infested with flies. There was no water flowing through it, only sewage, and we were told to not go near it because it was a real health hazard.”
For many, the Negev’s neglected waterways were not a primary concern, but one person thought differently. In 1997, Dr. Nehemya Shachaf was appointed head of the Shikma-Besor Drainage Authority, the body responsible for the cleaning up and rehabilitation of over 60 million dunams of waterways in the Negev. Shachaf’s attention quickly turned toward the Be’er Sheva River, believing if the polluted waterway and its weakened ecosystem could be rehabilitated and brought back to a healthy state, it would have a positive effect on the residents and city of Be’er Sheva and potentially see the return of local wildlife.
“When we started this project, I understood that cleaning up the river was something for the benefit of the public,” said Shachaf. But he dreamt bigger—Shachaf also wanted to build a park around the river, one that would not only increase the value of the immediate surroundings, but also attract tourists and new residents to the city. The dream was bold and it needed an equally bold partner to bring it to fruition.
Jewish National Fund was a natural fit to realize this dream, and already had a history of successfully rehabilitating other rivers and waterways in Israel—such as the Alexander River in Israel’s Hefer Valley. What caught JNF’s attention was Shachaf’s ambitious plan to revitalize and breathe new life into Be’er Sheva through nature: restoring and having clean, recycled water flow through the Be’er Sheva River and building a large lake surrounded by a massive green park. The partnership became an essential element in Jewish National Fund’s Blueprint Negev initiative, which focuses on developing southern Israel to attract 500,000 new residents to the area.
With JNF’s matching grants and collaboration, as well as support from regional and government partners, Shachaf’s dream began taking shape. In the early 2000s, the first section of the larger Be’er Sheva River Park—containing a promenade along the southern bank of the river and the lush green Bell Park—opened to the public. A 12,500 seat amphitheater (that can accommodate a staggering 30,000 spectators including the surrounding park) was built, and headlining acts from around the world began performing in Be’er Sheva. The beautiful Pipes Bridge—a pedestrian walkway connecting the Neve Noi neighborhood to the Old City—was built to help facilitate foot traffic, while historic sites like Beit Eshel, the Turkish Bridge, and Abraham’s Well, were all renovated to attract more tourists and reopened to the public.
Endless stretches of dusty desert that once surrounded the river have been replaced with vibrant greenery, and there’s daily progress being made on the Be’er Sheva River Park Lake. Known as Neve Midbar, or “desert oasis” in Hebrew, the 23-acre lake will be Israel’s largest man-made lake. More importantly, the lake will double as a reservoir to irrigate and care for the park’s needs. Water for the reservoir will be supplied by treated and recycled sewage and waste water from the city so as to not waste precious and scarce fresh water.
The lake’s construction will continue to transform Be’er Sheva into an even more attractive city for younger Israelis and their families, living up to its name as the crown jewel of JNF’s Blueprint Negev initiative. Once completed, plans are in place to build eco-friendly residential high-rises, a bike and walking path around the lake, restaurants, shops, galleries, and more. The lake has also interested bird-watchers with the prospects of attracting oasis birds, such as Arabian babblers, desert larks, and scrub warblers. Although it is not certain that the lake will directly increase Be’er Sheva’s wildlife, JNF’s success in restoring the Hula Lake in northern Israel, which has attracted the return of migratory cranes and has been become a major tourist destination, has residents optimistic about the lake’s potential positive ecological impact.
“The Be’er Sheva River Park is one of the main anchors of the city of Be’er Sheva, and it serves as a green lung in the heart of the Negev,” said Mayor Ruvik Danilovich, Be’er Sheva’s young and dynamic mayor, who has been a big proponent of the environmental initiatives brought forth by JNF and the Drainage Authority from the start. “I am delighted to see what was once a hazardous environmental site become a center for recreation, leisure, culture, and tourism. I have no doubt that with Jewish National Fund’s help, the park will continue to be developed and so will Be’er Sheva.”
Farther south, another Jewish National Fund-supported initiative is creating change by setting politics aside and bringing people together to collaborate on shared environmental issues.
Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians gather in Israel’s Negev Desert to talk about the one thing they all have in common: the planet. It may sound like a joke—only without the rabbi, priest, and imam—but this in fact does happen in the most unlikely of places—the Arava desert, a stretch of land straddling the Israeli-Jordanian border from the port city of Eilat in the south to the Dead Sea to the north. It is there that the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a Jewish National Fund-supported research institute, is transcending national and political differences for the greater good, conducting research on the importance of plants and animals, and learning to manage the region’s precious water resources.
Founded in 1996, following the Oslo Accords, the Institute’s motto is “Nature knows no borders,” and it proudly strives to hew to this policy in its programming and projects. The Institute welcomes students from around the world, including Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Europe, and North and South America, to learn about shared resources and protection from desertification, as well as environmental and cross-border cooperation.
Amgad Hijazin, a Jordanian student, came to the Institute in 2014 to study more about cross-border environmental cooperation between neighboring states, particularly on environmental matters shared by Jordan and Israel. Before coming to the Arava, Hijazin worked at the Jordanian National Research Center, an environmental research organization based in Amman, and like many students he had reservations about coming to the Jewish State for his studies.
To help ease this transition, all new students attend the Peace-Building Leadership Seminar. This mandatory seminar is designed to help create mutual understanding, empathy, and friendship among students from varying backgrounds. “In the beginning, students came together to talk about the conflict,” Hijazin said. “We were discussing difficult topics, and even though it was hard at times, that’s when you become friends.” Today, Hijazin says he has met many Israelis working towards peace and has also gained a better understanding of his own country. “I’m part of this conflict. We, in Jordan, are part of it. Environmental and ecological issues persist despite a border here or there.”
Dr. Clive Lipchin, an expert on water resource management at the Institute, credits the Jewish National Fund and its support for the successes in cross-border relationship building and education with students from neighboring states, as well as an increase in mutual cooperation. He claims that this assistance helps the Institute engage Palestinians, Jordanians, and Israelis while promoting mutual cooperation through improving or protecting something that affects all of them—the environment. “JNF is an essential partner in helping us achieve that mission.”
While the Arava Institute pursues many environmental rehabilitation projects, one focus now is tracking and mitigating damages following a massive oil spill in the Arava’s Evrona Nature Reserve in 2014. Viewed by many as Israel’s greatest ecological disaster, approximately 20,000 barrels of crude oil gushed from a breach in the Trans-Israel pipeline, contaminating the soil, threatening plants and wildlife, and affecting the health of and hospitalizing over 80 people in Israel and Jordan.
Three years later, cleanup efforts continue and researchers are studying the long-term consequences of the spill on the Arava’s fragile ecological system and local species, such as the doum palm and acacia trees. “Animals can outrun the effects of a spill,” Dr. Lipchin said, “however, there’s a greater concern for vegetation, especially the acacia.”
As part of his research and studies, Hijazin—who decided to stay in Israel to pursue a master’s degree from Ben Gurion University—has been involved in the oil spill cleanup. He also shared Dr. Lipchin’s concern that the spill’s main effect has been on the second generation of plant life. Based on tracking and measurements over the last three years, he believes older acacia trees can be saved through soil remediation and other measures, but he’s also seeing fewer young trees in the area now than there should be. The spill didn’t cross into Jordan, but Hijazin has noticed a decrease in new acacias on the Jordanian side as well. “In Jordan, the acacia is one of the main food sources for desert animals and it is also important for people, as it provides shade and charcoal,” he said.
Residents in the Central Arava have noted that the iconic tree has been facing problems over the last decade. Acacias are classified as a “keystone” species, meaning that they not only anchor the soil and prevent further desertification, but they also enrich it. They are a type of legume, similar to beans or clovers, adding nitrogen to the soil, which in turn helps other species grow and thrive. When residents began noticing the trees were vanishing, the Central Arava Regional Council, along with JNF, stepped in and created the Adopt-an-Acacia program.
The Council and JNF began the project by asking local residents to collect seeds from trees already growing on and around their properties. The seeds were germinated and raised in a nursery, then returned to the areas where they had been collected. As part of his research into the acacia’s decline, Hijazin has been collecting seeds and experimenting with four types of germination treatments to find the one best suited for Jordan’s dry climate. He is hopeful of replicating the successes seen in the Arava in his country once he returns.
Although the spill continues to have long-lasting effects, it has sparked an increase in cross-border cooperation. “We have launched the Track II Environmental Forum in order to bring decision makers from the area together,” said David Lehrer, executive director of the Arava Institute. “The forum will help advance cross-border environmental agreements between Israel, the PA, and Jordan—we all share the same ecosystem and its health is important, especially with such events.”
Protecting the environment and acting as guardian of the land are part of JNF’s DNA. Be’er Sheva’s revitalization and the promotion of environmental collaboration among neighbors are just two examples of the dozens of projects and programs Jewish National Fund spearheads to ensure a bright, prosperous, and secure future for all who call Israel home.
Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod is a freelance writer for Jewish National Fund. Megan E. Turner is a clinical social worker who regularly writes for Jewish National Fund projects and about the organization’s development in Be’er Sheva and the wider Negev.