Many of Israel’s citizens are exposed to environmental hazards: dangerous fumes as well as air, noise, and waste pollution in public spaces – but the authorities only respond partially, if at all, to these threats

A factory in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak.
A factory in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak.Credit: Hadas Parush

Zafrir Rinat. May 4, 2023

Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry has boasted in recent years about new laws meant to protect the environment. But after reading the State Comptroller’s report on the ministry’s enforcement activity, it’s impossible not to conclude that the legislation in question was drawn up in a parallel universe, with little connection to Israel’s day-to-day reality.

Israel is a crowded country, jam-packed with factories, roads and waste disposal sites that affect the environment. Many of Israel’s citizens are exposed to environmental hazards: dangerous fumes as well as air, noise, and waste pollution in public spaces. Yet the authorities only respond partially, if at all, to these threats.

The report shows that in recent years, there has been a downward trend of official factory inspections and both administrative and criminal enforcement of factory-related issues is sparse – which weakens the state’s ability to reduce pollution. The huge gap between the scope of supervisory and enforcement related assignments that need to be carried out and the amount of personnel available to do so has barely narrowed. 

Responsibility for these issues lies first and foremost with the governments who failed to ramp up enforcement over the past 30 years. The Environmental Protection Ministry responded to the report, complaining that it hadn’t received the commensurate resources to implement the environmental laws approved in recent years and had been forced to run on limited resources. “Depleted personnel among the green police, researchers and field inspectors limits the ability to manage hazards,” the ministry added. “ This substandard situation has lasted many years without being addressed.”

Israel’s government still doesn’t understand the importance of protecting the environment as an existential need and in order to prevent enormous economic damage. As the report states, there are significantly less enforcement personnel in the Environmental Protection Ministry than there are in other authorities such as the Securities Authority or the Land Administration. Moreover, these authorities don’t need to enforce nearly as many laws as the Environmental Protection Ministry. Other issues, such as low wages, hinder the ministry from recruiting highly skilled employees.

Still, the Environmental Protection Ministry takes partial responsibility for this dire situation. The methods of enforcing environmental laws have undergone various changes in countries around the world. But they all are based on maintaining a proper balance between repairing environmental damage and avoiding the use of harsh punishment and fines. 

Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry has not formulated by consensus a methodical approach to guide enforcement activities – which could then be adjusted as needed. For example, setting clear priorities for handling environmental offenses would allow the ministry to focus its efforts on addressing more severe threats. Coordination between the various enforcement units and ministry headquarters could also be improved. The ministry could recruit or take advantage of enforcement personnel already employed in other authorities, such as inspectors, to overcome their personnel shortage. 

Improving the Environmental Protection Ministry’s inspection and enforcement capabilities has become more essential considering recent developments. The first development is integrated licensing reform, which provides a more efficient process for receiving business licenses and permits, mainly for factories, and requires close inspection by environment ministry officials to make sure business owners don’t violate their license. The second, a worrying development, is the present government’s policy meant to weaken the Environmental Protection Ministry’s authorities. 

This effort includes a clause in the Arrangements Law to transfer some supervisory authorities regarding the clean air law to Noga, the electricity grid management company. The plan would allow Noga to decide when to operate power plants even if they exceed pollution limits. The coalition is also moving to undermine the status of ministerial legal advisers. The proposal, still on the table, would put the green police under the authority of the National Security Ministry.

Projected population growth, the climate crisis and the growing lack of government in large swathes of Israel all require bolstering Environmental Protection Ministry officials and enforcement activity. These trends could worsen environmental issues: Israel needs proper governance, more efficient utilization of resources and to take action to prevent further pollution and environmental hazards. Enforcement officials will always be important, but the time has come to see them as essential, deserving professional and fair compensation for their services.