The largest organization in Israel, the IDF has a profound impact on air, water and land resources, but is exempt from environmental laws

A donkey stands next to an IDF drill in the Golan Heights in 2018.
A donkey stands next to an IDF drill in the Golan Heights in 2018.Credit: Gil Eliyahu Liat Levy

Liat Levy Jan 9, 2023

As part of the Israel Defense Forces giant vehicle leasing program, military officers will soon be receiving brand new cars. Those with the rank of brigadier general will receive Skoda Superbs, colonels and lieutenant colonels will receive Toyota Corollas, and combat commanders will be given Peugeot 2008 SUVs. Skoda, Toyota, or Peugeot – each and every officer will have a spacious new car to call his or her own.

This information can be found in a report published about a month ago on the IDF Technology and Logistics Division’s website. Reading it, it begs to question why only 5 percent of the cars in the program will be electric.

A Peugeot 2008 SUV. Why limit the number of electric vehicles that will be acquired to just 5 percent of the total?
A Peugeot 2008 SUV. Why limit the number of electric vehicles that will be acquired to just 5 percent of the total?

“Every car that gets on the road will remain there for 10 to 15 years,” says Chen Herzog, chief economist of BDO Consulting Israel. “Today, 15 percent of all cars on Israeli roads are electric, so I don’t understand how the IDF is fixing a ceiling of just 5 percent in the bidding process. Why isn’t it leading the EV revolution?”

This vehicle leasing program is just one of many examples of how the Israel Defense Forces lags far behind when it comes to protecting the environment. IDF infrastructure is aging and deficient, as are its approaches to food, fuel, and recycling. The army generates an enormous amount of trash, and many of its installations aren’t even properly connected to the sewage system. Yet despite its size, social influence, and obvious impact on the environment: The IDF remains exempt from Israel’s environmental laws.

Trash left behind by the army near Kibbutz Holit, near the Gaza border.
Trash left behind by the army near Kibbutz Holit, near the Gaza border. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Food waste in the IDF

According to an annual report issued by Leket-Israel National Food Bank and BDO Consulting, all Israeli security forces combined serve 147 million meals annually, of which 30 percent are thrown away. That’s 50 million servings – 85 percent of which come from IDF kitchens.

“The IDF today lacks a broad policy of food preservation. This should be a basic condition in invitations for bids for catering – setting goals to reduce food waste, in data transparency and in internalizing the environmental impact of such waste,” says Chen Herzog of BDO. “Today, contributions [of surplus food] depend on the good will of the base commander, and that’s a shame. In our view, the food that’s thrown out is tantamount to public money that’s being turned into polluting waste.”

Elam Bar-Adon, a soldier from Rehovot, tried to do something about this. He was serving in Nahal’s 50th battalion when the army announced an environmental competition. Reducing food waste had always been an important issue to him, so he set out to build an application that would help reduce the huge quantities of food the IDF throws away every day.

‘At every meal where rice is served, about 5 kilos get thrown away. If the army was monitoring the amount of food it purchases, it would easily find that it could prepare 5 kilos less rice.’

“I noticed how the army prepared much more food in advance than it needed to,” he says. “If, for example, a kitchen needs to feed 100 people, it will prepare around 170 servings composed of two kinds of protein – chicken breast and schnitzel. One hundred people don’t need more than 120 servings, but because the kitchen staff doesn’t know which dish the soldiers will prefer, they prepares far more than they need to. The main idea behind the app was that soldiers would get the weekly menu on their phones and could decide in advanced what protien they want for the week from a menu sent to them. That way, instead of 170 portions, the kitchen will know what’s needed, and can prepare [exactly] 120 [servings].”

After sharing the idea with his commander, the two started to work on the plan as a joint project until Bar-Adon did something – which he calls “an act of stupidity” that he regrets to this day. On the popular Instagram page Mitahat Haradar (Under the Radar), he posted a few paragraphs criticizing food waste in army kitchens and highlighting the need for a project to combat food waste.

In the post, Bar-Adon wrote, “In my army unit, there’s no efficient food management at all. To manage food optimally, the most important thing is to pay attention to what we’re not using. Routine monitoring of the kitchen will reveal that very quickly. At every meal where rice is served, about 5 kilos get thrown away. If the army was monitoring the amount of food it purchases, it would easily find that it could prepare 5 kilos less of rice. In the end, everyone would leave full, we’d have less waste and pollution, and we’d save money.”

Whether or not the figures in Bar-Adon’s were exact, his commander and partner in the project was uncomfortable with the level of criticism leveled at the army. “Ultimately,” Bar-Adon says, “he was the one with the power – and we didn’t pursue the idea any further.”

Lunchtime at Camp Ariel Sharon, also known as the City of Training Base, in southern Israel.
Lunchtime at Camp Ariel Sharon, also known as the City of Training Base, in southern Israel. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The need for a solution to IDF food waste remains. Herzog says that since the outbreak of coronavirus, IDF kitchens began serving wrapped meals on individual trays rather than buffet-style meals, which does waste less food – but unfortunately creates more plastic trash. Leket for example tries to coordinate with army bases to donate food deemed “salvageable” – that is, food that has not yet reached anyone’s plate – yet the initiative remains confined to agreements with individual bases and has not been implemented on an organizational level in the IDF.

“Giving surplus food to the needy is a social, environmental and economic act,” says Herzog. “It prevents waste and has an environmental contribution. Not only do we save the food from going into a landfill, but we also save all the natural resources and emissions that go into the food-production process.”

The aftermath of a fire at the Gamla Nature Reserve, caused by an Israeli army drill.

The aftermath of a fire at the Gamla Nature Reserve, caused by an Israeli army drill. Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Sewage, gas leaks, and ground pollution on IDF bases

Twelve years ago, the Environmental Protection Administration began conducting a periodical survey of environmental hazards and the condition of infrastructure in the IDF. In 2016, the survey found that hundreds of army sites don’t comply with environmental law: defective gas stations, infrastructure that allows fuel to leak into the ground, bases that aren’t connected to the sewage system and chaos in waste management facilities.

A government decision made in June 2010 stipulated that within five years, 577 IDF bases would be connected to the sewage system. The plan was supposed to receive 400 million shekels ($107 million at the time) from the Defense Ministry and the Environmental Protection Ministry. But due to differences of opinion between the ministries, only part of the sum was allocated, and even that money was not properly used.

Since the government decision, only 77 bases have been connected to the sewage system. A visit to Shivta military base is rather revealing of what remains the norm at most IDF bases. At Shivta, one might initially be impressed by greenery and small lakes that surround the base, but anyone with a sense of smell would immediately realize that the lakes are in fact sewage – sewage that is indeed meant to be channeled to a local waste facility, but often exceeds the facility’s capacity and instead flows into open areas.

Sewage next to the Shivta military base.
Sewage next to the Shivta military base.Credit: Hagai Blechner / The Ministry of Environmental Protection’s Green Police

Most IDF bases are not much different from Shivta: They’ve been left to pump out the sewage that forms cesspools around the base twice a week with a vacuum truck. But who will make sure the truck arrives?

The organization that is supposed to supervise such matters is the Environmental Protection Ministry. However, enforcement groups in the ministry face difficulties as unlike many Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member states, Israel has no hard law against ground pollution – but rather has various laws that help prevent it, which the IDF is exempt from.

As a result, the army has neglected reporting the conditions of their infrastructure to the ministry – leaving various gaps. Currently, there is some reporting, but it lacks continuity. “For years we had many gaps vis-à-vis the army,” says Avi Haim, the manager of the ministry’s Industrial Wastewater and Contaminated Soils and Fuels Division. “We held many meetings with military representatives, but every few years they’re replaced and we’re forced to start the same discussions with new commanders.”

The ministry issued a summons to the deputy chief of staff and the commander of the air force about two years ago, due to the army’s failure to meet the standards for preventing water pollution at gas stations and the fact that it didn’t bother to report the findings of routine tests it was supposed to conduct at the stations. This summons led to the Ofek Yarok (Green Horizon) plan, which allocated 100 million shekels to treat the army’s 235 gas stations. Currently, 100 of them are in the process of being closed and the remaining ones are expected to adopt new standards.

“A gas station is a major source of pollution,” says Ofri Haziz, director of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s department of prevention of water pollution from infrastructure. “They have underground tanks that contain fuel, and in the military gas stations, most of them are old and likely to leak. There are no checks to see whether the tanks are in good condition, and as a result, in 80 to 90 percent of the stations the soil is contaminated.”

A senior IDF source promises that the gas stations issue is on its way to being resolved. “We want to reduce our footprint and make sure to adapt the stations to the standard of the 21st century rather than that of the 1970s. Replacement of all the remaining 100 stations will be spread over a decade.” He says it will take so long because contractors have a limited number of gas stations they can renovate every year. In addition to replacing the infrastructure, the soil contamination will be treated in all the renovated gas stations. “We’ve already received the money for this year’s work, and next year’s budget is locked,” he notes.

The bases of the Israel Air Force – considered the symbol of technological progress – are a greater source of pollution than those of the other units, and they haven’t even begun to implement the Ofek Yarok plan. The air force is one of the country’s greatest consumers of fuel. Information about jet fuel quantities is classified, but according to international data, an F-16 fighter jet consumes 3.6 tons of jet fuel per hour of low flight, and in 2020 it was reported that Israel ordered 4 billion liters of jet fuel and diesel fuel for military use from the United States.

A ceremony for outstanding graduates at the Hatzerim Airbase.
A ceremony for outstanding graduates at the Hatzerim Airbase. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The air force also requested an extension to create a multiyear plan to repair defects in drainage, pipes and the streams used for storing the fuel and fueling the planes. “A good amount of the infrastructure on the air force bases is from the time of the British [Mandate],” says Haim. In addition, he says “People there aren’t interested in the amount of fuel that flows. If it were a private company, every liter of fuel that is wasted would cause them losses and they would make sure to prevent leaks, but in the army it doesn’t work like that. In the air force bases we checked there is major soil contamination, and some has already seeped into the groundwater.

The bases of the Israel Air Force – considered the symbol of technological progress – are a greater source of pollution than those of the other units.

“Such pollution also spreads. In civilian industry they use technology to prevent contamination. It’s expensive, but more economical than treating contamination, because every liter that reaches the groundwater makes treating it four times as expensive as treating pollution that remains on the ground and hasn’t had time to seep in.

“The risk goes beyond polluting the groundwater,” adds Haziz. “There’s also a fear of gases penetrating the ground. The poisonous gases are found in the ground space and can rise up to residential areas, and from there spread several dozen meters, if not more. In addition, we also see polluted sewage flowing into riverbeds, like sewage that seeped from the Julis base to the Evta Stream.”

In June 2016 a leak near one of the fueling points of the School for Military Engineering gas station was discovered – 5,000 liters of diesel oil had spilled from an underground pipe. The gas station, which is used to fuel all of the unit’s mechanical engineering equipment, has three fueling points. The army has a protocol for everything, and in cases of leaks of this kind, the protocol is to block off the polluted ground, isolate it, cover it and put up signs in the area. The next stage is to sample the ground and have a contractor remove it to a licensed site.

Although the soil was blocked off relatively quickly, only one year later, after it was patrolled by the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Green Police, the army contacted a licensed contractor to come and remove the soil. Another year passed. The polluted soil was cleared away only in September 2018 – two and a half years after the pollution was first discovered. In February 2020 the officer in charge of infrastructure and environmental protection in the ground forces, which is responsible for the School for Military Engineering, was charged with negligence.

Although the officer, a captain, had in fact brought up the problem – he hadn’t taken action, despite holding a position that made him responsible for keeping track of budgeting and implementing the steps necessary to treat such hazards. His punishment was nevertheless laughable: He was fined 1,000 shekels and received a 30-day suspended sentence.

According to the Environmental Protection Law, the Environmental Protection Ministry has the authority to enter, inspect and even fine the IDF for the pollution and hazards that it causes. In addition to the fines, the law allows the ministry to file complaints that could end in a criminal investigation.

A 2016 directive from the attorney general requires that the Military Police Investigation Unit be included in the investigation. In the past five years there have been ongoing investigations into ground pollution caused by faulty infrastructure or the actions of an army unit, in addition to the indictment mentioned above. To date, the highest-ranking person convicted was a lieutenant colonel.

The IDF also is also guilty for causing a large number of fires, especially during combat training exercises. But instructions to prevent fires, which pollute the air and damage the flora and the fauna, are not found in the army’s training file.

“The significance of including fires in the training file is that the commander managing the exercise will take into account the danger of a conflagration as part of his considerations, and the danger of fire won’t be a negligible datum,” explains Yatir Shamir, director of the Law Enforcement Division in the Nature and Parks Authority.

In 2022, the area that caught on fire and burned as a result of army training exercises fell by half from the previous year – but was still 25,000 dunams (6,177 acres). Just recently, fires broke out in the Lachish training base due to training exercises, and the army is still clashing with the Parks Authority over the question of what fire extinguishing means soldiers will take with them to training sessions.

“If an area is burned once, that’s not so terrible,” says Shamir, “but if an area is burned again and again there is no opportunity for rehabilitation and it is seriously damaged. Animals in it become extinct, as does the flora. If there is natural forest at the site, it will take many years and a large budget to rehabilitate it.”

Gamla Nature Reserve fire caused by an Israeli army drill.
Gamla Nature Reserve fire caused by an Israeli army drill. Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Recycling in the IDF

Imagine 400 trucks full of trash leaving an IDF base. According to one senior army official, as part of a recent project, they army cleared away 100 tons of waste meant for recycling – some of which was lying on the bases for 30 years.

The IDF is one of the country’s biggest importers of everything from ammunition to food. According to the packaging law passed in 2011, every importer is required to sign a contract with a state-owned recycling corporation and pay it for separating packaging, based on its estimated imports. At the same time, the recycling corporation pays the local governments to handle the trash designated for recycling. Local governments are required to install orange bins for separating trash for recycling in their area. IDF bases are also required to install such bins, but as of now they have neglected the law.

“We understand that these are arrangements that are not easy for the IDF,” says Elad Amichai, the senior vice president for Local Government and Community in the Environmental Protection Ministry who’s also in charge of the laws governing packaging and deposits. “But a lot of time has passed since the law was passed, and the time has come for the organization in charge of state security to participate in obeying its environmental laws.”

Last year, the director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry, Galit Cohen, summoned Deputy Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi to a meeting on the subject. According to Amichai, at the end of the meeting Cohen made it clear to Halevi that if the Defense Ministry doesn’t start making packaging arrangements that comply with the law and doesn’t operate in accordance with its directives, the ministry will consider actual enforcement: a fine of half a million shekels and potential criminal proceedings. Both parties agreed that the IDF would take action on the issue – and in fact, the ministry soon received a draft of the IDF agreement with the recycling corporation Tamir.

But according to Amichai, the draft agreement does not meet professional criteria. “We asked for a work plan that would lead to all the IDF bases having orange bins, and a binding timetable, but we didn’t see that,” says Amichai. He returned the draft contract with suggestions for improvements and the army promised a reply within two weeks. He says that it’s already been three months and there is still no new agreement.

“The army wanted to sign an agreement on principle, but we didn’t agree,” says Ronnie Aidler, CEO of the Tamir Recycling Corporation. The reason or the refusal may lie in a painful experience from the past. In 2015 the Defense Ministry announced that the IDF was joining the recycling revolution, but it never happened. “There was an attempt to place orange bins in the Golan Heights,” says Aidler. “That didn’t succeed because the army didn’t introduce separation of packaging and recycling as part of General Staff inspections. We got mainly garbage in those bins. The IDF needs to understand that recycling is not dependent on good will – in other words, the good will of commanders for whom it’s part of their order of priorities.”

Still, Aidler is optimistic. About two weeks ago he went with his staff for a two-day inspection tour. At the end of the tour six bases were chosen – among them Tzrifin, Tel Hashomer and Tel Nof – and orange bins will be placed on them by April. “The goal is that within three to four years all the bases will join the process,” says Aidler.

The IDF Spokesperson responds

On the vehicle leasing program: “The IDF considers environmental protection important and operates on many planes to promote the issue and prevent pollution. On the issue of mobility, the transition to electric vehicles is being carried out in a controlled and responsible manner, without damaging the IDF’s operational capability.

At this stage the national infrastructure and the deployment of charging stations does not enable a full transition to electric vehicles. In the coming year charging stations will be deployed on bases, which will enable the start of the transition along with the integration of hybrid vehicles in the call for bids for leasing. For the long term we are examining a variety of technological alternatives for the use of advanced transportation in both personal and operational mobility.”

On the subject of food waste: “The IDF is working in cooperation with Leket Israel, which is permitted to collect surplus meals from IDF units. The food donation is carried out according to instructions that ensure a high-quality and edible food donation.”

On the subject of fuel and soil agreements: “The IDF is working to improve the fuel infrastructure and meet the requirements of the law. As opposed to what was claimed, there was no clarification discussion with the deputy chief of staff on the subject. About a year ago the Green Horizon plan was approved for multiyear handling of the fuel infrastructure in the IDF in general. In the context of the plan, about 40 gas stations on IDF bases were closed in the past 14 months, and about 150 IDF gas stations that will remain active were upgraded. Implementation of the plan will continue as planned in the coming years.”

On recycling: “The subject of recycling in the IDF and the separate recycling bins in particular, is in the final stage of signing an agreement for waste removal, in coordination with the Defense Ministry and the Tamir corporation that is responsible for implementing the packaging law. We will stress that the IDF carries out recycling and separation of all the waste at the source.

“The IDF will continue in its efforts to follow a greener routine, along with maintaining operational fitness.”