In the beginning, a steep cliff of fossilized sandstone stretched down the Mediterranean coastline. For tens of thousands of years this clifftop was the domain of the Golden Jackal, Palestinian Viper and Spur-thighed tortoise, a panoply of other creatures, and not much as far as human. Above the cliff’s rim and stretching inland, dry grass and sea fennel grew among undulating dunes, brilliant white. Further inland were the grasslands, home to roaming Gazelle and Mount Tabor oaks, thick fragrant groves of mottled limbs and chattering parakeets, and Aloe Vera cacti wrapped around the trunks of date palms, food and shelter for the tortoises. This is the way Apollonia was for the majority of its existence, a land separate from human affairs, subject only to the scuffing of scale and paw and snout, and the decay of organic things.
Apollonia is first mentioned in the Ancient Greek book on navigation, Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax, as a station along the sea trading route around the Mediterranean and Black Sea . Ancient Greek geographers would make note of points of interest along a coastline and compile these into a chronological list, making the Periplus a primitive travel itinerary of sorts. This brief mention places Apollonia under the first Persian Empire. Initially a small outpost overshadowed by its wealthier coastal neighbors Jaffa and Caesarea, Apollonia grew into a small town and then a regional center of trade. The soil was fertile, and a port was built in the calm, shallow waters beneath the cliff. Then the Seleucids came along, followed by the Romans, who expanded Apollonia into a primary industrial center in the region between the Yarkon and Poleg rivers.
From the start, Apollonia was valued by empires for its fertility and access to sheltered waters. Its stability as a trade hub was the most significant factor in its growth as an industrial center, and since Apollonia’s trade functions were based on its geographical traits, this value stretched beyond the temporal borders of the empires it served. Apollonia’s permanent nature has been bolstered by the long-term geographical consistency of its regional counterparts, Acre and Yafo, to create an unshifting ‘trifecta’ of commercial hubs in the Sharon coastal region that served the economic needs of each passing empire, so that each remained relatively unmarred by wars of conquest. Permanence did not, however, beget material stagnation. Apollonia has been destroyed before, and rebuilt, but never entirely buried. In 113 AD, under Roman rule, an earthquake destroyed the area, yet it was promptly restored to its original state of function. Apollonia served as a market street during the early Arab period, from the 7th to the 11th century AD and during this time many structures were destroyed and rebuilt, while the street itself was repaved eight times.
These ancient processes of renovation, alongside consistent settlement for over a millennium (500 BC – 1260 AD), and its position at the juncture of multiple intercontinental trade arteries, are responsible for the site’s reputation among archaeologists as an unbroken palimpsest, a cross-cultural record of human endeavor in the region for millennia. When investigating non-human phenomena, namely the development of Flora and Fauna in the region, one can go only as far back as has been recorded by humans themselves. This is because records, even of non-human phenomena, are tied to the course of human interest in such things, and in the case of Apollonia, go as far back as the old testament. The bible names around 100 plants that can be attributed to Eretz Israel, most of which are mentioned in reference to their utility in practical (edible) or ritualistic (incense) realms of activity.
Many of the names, such as koẓ ve-dardar (“thorns and thistles”) and shamir vashayit (“briars and thorns”), are too generic to pinpoint, and as such investigations into these names are based on the assumption that not much has changed in the country’s ecological profile during the course of recorded history. As evidenced by the story of the Kermes Oak , this is not entirely true.
Strabo, a Greek traveler who passed through the Sharon coastal plain during the early Hellenistic period, said: “after Acre one comes to Straton’s tower (Cesarea), then to a big forest and afterwards to Jaffa”. The Crusaders called the Sharon coastal region “La Foret” (The Forest), described in detail in documents pertaining to Richard the Lionheart’s 1191 AD conquest of the region from Salah ed-Din’s Moslem army. In 1869, during the pilgrimage upon which his book Innocents Abroad is based, Mark Twain wrote of the region: “ Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent”.
Six centuries later and Twain’s expectations are met with ‘barren hills’, and ‘feeble vegetation’. Indeed, the picture he presents is bleak, but not unfamiliar to me and others who have lived for years along this stretch of land. What were once dense forests are now dry grasses, a sparseness of vegetation I have grown to associate with the region as its natural state of being. Four years after Twain’s visit, an expedition led by the Palestinian Exploration Fund reported the presence of living stumps of the Kermes Oak several miles north-east of Jaffa. C.F. De Volney’s 1825 report of oak forests near Cesarea allows us to approximate the period of decline of Kermes Oak in the Sharon Coastal plain to the middle of the 19th century. The Ottoman Empire saw great benefits to the local population of Moslem and Christian Palestinians, and a new merchant class grew on the foundation of strong agricultural production. This productivity, centered around the Sharon Coastal region, was facilitated by massive scale, Ottoman-mandated deforestation for the purpose of clearing land for agricultural use, as well as wood for heating, building, and fuel for lime kilns. Further degradation and soil erosion was brought about by the increasing power of roaming Bedouin tribes, who over the course of the century, chased out the local farmers, leaving vast swaths of farmland abandoned. These terraced farms were soon washed away, accelerating processes of desertification already in place since the Oak stands were razed, and by the time Twain arrived, the landscape was a rocky spectre of its former self.
Amidst the global and political factors that led to the establishment and success of the Israeli state, the Sharon coastal plain has reclaimed its role as a center of commerce and industry, housing 57 percent of Israel’s population in a metropolitan sprawl that spreads almost uninterrupted from Zikhron Ya’akov to Tel Aviv.
Israel’s growing population (1.9 percent annual) is rapidly filling in any gaps in this sprawl, groves of Carob and Eucalyptus replaced with clusters of high-rise residential towers. These planned communities of cheap concrete boast ‘Ocean Views’, views which hike the rent to levels which effectively negate any claim that the development could help solve a very real, very grave housing crisis among Israel’s middle and lower class. Picture the Mediterranean, stretching blue and unperturbed across the horizon to the west. Picture dunes capped with sparse, mud-green vegetation in ever-shrinking rectangular lots, negative space forested by construction cranes.
Picture an unbroken strip of turmeric yellow, a sandstone cliff which divides the sea from the land. Picture a clearing in the forest of cranes, a large strip of land, bordering Herzliya to the north and Shefayim to the south, which remains untouched by developers. This strip of land is called Apollonia, and it is the subject of the following news report, which aired on Israeli television on the morning of July 30, 1992. (All italics past this point are part of the translated transcript of the report):
Around 8 o’clock this morning, the country’s central region was rocked by a devastating explosion, originating from the Israeli Military Industry facility situated in Nof Yam. Moshe raz, 50, and gershon mazliach, 28, both from herzliya, were killed instantly in the explosion, which seems to have originated from an underground storage bunker, while 46 others were wounded. The resulting mushroom cloud, which could be seen from as far away as Ramat Hasharon, was documented by bystander’s cameras. The explosion was heard and felt tens of kilometers from the site. This is what is left of the Israeli Military Industry factory located near Nof Yam, along the coastline of Sidni Ali and Herzliya:”
Cut to a panoramic shot: rescue workers clambering over a jagged expanse of flattened shrubs and pulverized concrete, precarious, grasping at exposed sheet metal and girders for support. They are captured along the edge of a cliff with the Mediterranean in the background. In the image you can see the corner of a storage bunker, now exposed, of the type used to store
crude gunpowder. According to the official investigation, two such bunkers containing nearly one hundred tons of crude gunpowder and other RDX-based explosives accidentally ignited and caused massive explosions which obliterated the majority of the factory buildings.
“One of the rescue teams’ top priorities is to investigate whether the explosion poses a serious contamination hazard, as cars and drivers were struck by debris as they drove down the coastal highway, at a distance of a few hundred meters from the site. Given recent events, Police and Rescue forces are well prepared for explosions such as these, and mobilized quickly to the area.”
The nature of these ‘recent events’ is not mentioned, but given the culmination of the Gulf War several months prior, I would assume this is a nod to a general public, who until recently had been subject to the rigorous safety protocols of a country under constant missile threat. The explosion shattered windows as far away as Tel Aviv. The fact that the explosion originated from underground storage bunkers saved countless lives, as it is important to remember, this incident occurred in the centre of one of Israel’s most populated areas. Rescue work continued intensively throughout the entire morning. However, there are still many grievously wounded out there creatures who are not usually included in the count, and of these we saw many today, limping and writhing amongst the dunes.”
Cut to zoomed in shot of a burrowing owl, hobbling past a clump of barbed wire, wings twitching and bent at odd angles.
“Israeli Military Industry officials arrived within a short time, and they too were shocked at the level of devastation.”
Cut to a shot through a chain-link fence, to the nearest row of houses. Glass shards litter the ground. Nearby, a roof has caved in entirely. The ‘neighbourhood’ the camera pans over is largely comprised of dry grass lots. A few dirt roads connect fewer bungalows.
Cut to an interview with a young man in a tank top and baseball hat. He slouches casually against the hood of a car, but his shoulders are stiff and his gaze shifts around rapidly, looking everywhere but at the interviewer.
Tank top man: “It felt like it did in the war. I felt it, I thought it was a SCUD, I was sure.. everything shattered around me.”
Interviewer: “So, the house around you shook?”
Tank top man: “What are you talking about, shook? I’m telling you, it was worse than a SCUD! Really, a lot worse.”
Man in the background: “It was like 3 SCUD’s, it was!”
This interview took place a decade after Israel’s 1982 ground invasion of Southern Lebanon, a war which still rang in the ears of many young veterans who had to build their lives on the heels of Israel’s first ‘morally dubious’ war . The civilian price in Lebanon was high, as soldiers found themselves responsible for increasing numbers of refugees and POW’s, while supply chains failed, leading to large scale malnutrition. The IDF’s conduct was rooted in a deep mistrust resulting from ambushes, roadside bombs, and civilian informants.
Passive and active human rights violations tarnished the IDF’s global image. As a result, and for the first time in history, national and global sentiment leaned toward downsizing the IDF. Israeli Military Industries closed down several factories and storage units. This caused a buildup of explosive material such as black powder and Nitroglycerine-based explosives in remaining facilities. One of these facilities is the one in Apollonia, which was forced to accommodate excess explosive material from a recently closed facility in Yavne.
Since its founding in 1933 as a state-owned enterprise, Israel Military Industries (IMI) has operated in tandem with Israel’s military interests to develop and produce weapons. In a country whose economic development has always been a key factor in its ability to defend itself from foreign threats, it comes as no surprise that a state-operated weapons production enterprise should be the primary tool in the country’s industrial arsenal. Indeed, a 1985 report by Alex Mintz posits that Israel’s industrial sector is flooded with “numerous former high ranking military officers placed in key decision making positions”. With data that shows one-fourth of Israeli industrial workers tied to IMI’s activities, Mintz’s comprehensive analysis of the industrial sector reveals that Israel’s reality, at the time, was what Americans would describe as a tight-knit and far reaching ‘military industrial complex’.
This created a regulatory bubble, in which IMI’s monolithic status and state backing allowed it to influence environmental policies pertaining to its operations, policies which went largely uncontested in the market vacuum. Lax inspection standards, coupled with downsizing and overstuffed storage facilities were the main causes of the 1992 explosion in the Apollonia facility. A subsequent investigation found IMI executives guilty of negligence under article 338a of the Israeli criminal code. According to the prosecution, the 5 executives were aware of the situation in the factory, and of faulty storage and maintenance procedures for the safe containment of hundreds of tons of crude gunpowder, and were made aware of both the likelihood and the consequences of a breach, and the resulting ignition of explosive materials.
Despite this, the prosecution claims, they took no measures to prevent such an outcome1. For the negligent killing of 2 employees, the injury of 46 others, and, unofficially causing what is considered to be the second worst case of environmental contamination Israel has ever seen, the ‘IMI five’ were sentenced to 140 hours of community service each.
A few minutes later the report moves to a nearby emergency room, where several people recline in hospital beds. They are being interviewed about the circumstances of their injuries.
A young man in his mid-thirties, head bandaged and propped up by pillows, recounts:
“I was doing some landscaping work in a home in Herzliya Pituach, one of those big villas, and we heard a boom. The ceiling above me was made of glass tiles, and it shattered. I happened to be under it.”
An old man lies fully reclined, picks at his clothing and appears shaken but somewhat exhilarated:
“There was a big explosion. I was out front, out near the —. Chunks of concrete were flying around, weighing 500-600 kilo, and one of them landed near me, and my leg got injured! From the shrapnel, I mean.”
A middle-aged man sits on the edge of the bed. His T-shirt is stretched loose, disheveled:
“What happened well let me tell you I was at work in Nof Yam, it was—”
“Excuse me! Excuse me! Photographers, please! By whose authority are you filming inside a hospital?”
The camera swivels to a group of men as they enter through a side door. A bulky man in a pit-stained short sleeve work shirt, yellow tinted Ray Bans and a walkie talkie has interrupted the interview:
“We have with us a security officer from IMI (Israeli Military Industries) who forbids you to film these patients.”
“Why exactly is that?” Says a woman’s voice from out of the frame. The shot cuts out.
Cut to the original reporter’s voice over.
“Special security officers tasked with maintaining confidentiality in matters pertaining to the explosion have prevented us from conducting any further interviews with the wounded.”
So, what we have so far is the anatomy of an ecological disaster. We have established the sequence of events on the day of the explosion, with a little insight on the conditions within which it was allowed to occur. Information on these was not hard to find. The political and industrial history of Israel is well documented. The legal proceedings following the event, the bureaucratic fallout if you will, has left a paper trail that can be easily traced. The environmental fallout, however, I found harder to track.
Herzliya locals, and those who have found it in their interest to explore the area, treat Apollonia as a sort of collective backyard, and use it as such. Dog walkers, bike riders, even the occasional horse can be seen treading the dirt trails that crisscross the grassland. Apollonia begins just where the houses end, with very little intermediate space, and almost no transition time between environs for those who enter.
In such a densely populated corner of the country, local residents covet their green horizon, and the buffer it provides between them and the rest of the noisy coastal strip as a sort of administrative fluke, a blessing whose precedent comes with a vague story about a factory and an explosion. Few know the extent of the damage done. Few people know about the groundwater contamination, meters deep with toxic byproducts from decades of explosives manufacturing. They don’t have time to investigate the kinds of explosives being manufactured there, and the chemical processes through which they are synthesized. They don’t have hours to spend on google researching the carcinogenic effects of said chemicals. Even fewer people know about the gap in the fence, and the old overgrown trails, and the three round pits half hidden in thickets. And I would wager that very, very few people have seen the yellow stains for themselves, and the ruptured barrels strewn across the bottom of these pits. And of the old well house, the one that has been around long before the factory was built, the one that still stands today, whose well is choked with cordite residue and toxic Trifluorobenzene, I assume almost no one had heard, until the summer of 2018, when an article was published on Ynet, an online Israeli news publication.
Following their dog, a German Shepherd named Tori, through the same gap in the fence I had been using for years, two men entered the abandoned facility with a digital camera and attempted to map out what they saw. The layout of the factory is classified, and as such, unavailable online, but we can gain insight into what stood there based on what can be observed today.
The fruits of this expedition can be condensed into three major findings:
Water channels – There is a network of concrete drainage channels that run above and below the dry ground of the overgrown factory. They are about 2 meters deep and 1 meter wide, and seem to have been open to the air, suggesting high volumes of fluid. Tracking them, they are connected to three large pits – flat-bottomed, unpaved and round with a diameter of approximately 8 meters. Leading to and from the pits, the channels combine into one thoroughfare, which appears to drain into the sea. These channels show signs of leakage, and the pits are stained yellow.
Well – the oldest building in the complex is a wellhouse, dating back to the days of the yishuv, when the land was used for agriculture. Local kids say this sagging old stone hut is haunted. What is certain is that the groundwater within is toxic.
The ‘Yellow Spot’ – A term coined by locals to describe semi-permanent yellow discoloration in the sea adjacent to the IMI factory site. “Following a 2004 investigation into the phenomenon, it has been discovered that the source of the yellow coloration is the chemical NIPA5, which, according to the researchers, is non-toxic, and therefore poses an aesthetic risk alone “.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection’s 2009 report on high-risk contamination zones in Israel provides further information on the extent of the damage, connecting between the wastewater collection pits, the drainage system, and the ‘yellow spot’ in the sea nearby. This report states that the contamination is spread across an area of 400 acres north of Nof Yam and Herzliya, and east of Apollonia National park. The explosion spread granules of explosive material across the surrounding area. A 1997 groundwater study found over 30,000 tons of earth to be contaminated with explosive material, heavy metal residue, and other products of organic synthesis, such as NIPA5. Much of the groundwater contamination can be traced back to the aforementioned wastewater collection pools, in which the factory would store wastewater before treatment. The extent of current contamination, bolstered by the fact that this area is currently considered one of the most polluted in Israel, suggests that even prior to the explosion much of the Factory’s wastewater went untreated, and was allowed to seep into the soil over several decades of operation.
The 2009 study mentions NIPA5 as a contaminant, while the 2018 article quotes a 2004 investigation into the yellow spot, which traces its source back to the same chemical. According to the 2004 investigation, which was conducted “externally”, i.e., not by the Ministry of Environmental Protection itself, the chemical poses no harm to human beings, and the yellow spot, although unsightly, is just that. An aesthetic blemish. NIPA5 is harmless, apparently. So, what exactly is NIPA5?
According to Thermo Fisher Scientific’s database, NIPA5 is soluble in water at 1.5 g/L at 20 ° C. That means 1 gram of NIPA5, no more, no less, can dissolve completely into 1 litre of water, as long as it is above 20 degrees celsius. Water temperatures off the coast of Tel Aviv have a year-average low of 21.0583C, according to data gathered from daily satellite readings provided by the NOAA.
Ok, that checks out.
According to the same database, NIPA5, or 5-Nitroisophthalic acid, is used as an “intermediate of medicine compound and as a disperser in dyes. It is used as an intermediate in organic synthesis, agrochemical, pharmaceutical and dyestuffs etc.” So, a chemical byproduct. Agrochemical, like fertilizer. Isn’t fertilizer used to make bombs?
I’m no chemist, and a detailed chemical analysis is not what this report requires. I want to know if what I have been told is true, if this chemical is indeed completely harmless. I am looking for warning signs.
In 2002, the United Nations implemented a universally harmonized classification system for chemicals, under the abbreviation, GHSCSC. Part of this system is a ‘Hazard Statement’ glossary, which uses a serial number system to identify and differentiate hazards, paired with standardized wording in description of hazards.
NIPA5 falls under the following Hazard statements:
H315 – ‘Causes skin irritation’
H319 – ‘Causes serious eye irritation’
H335 – ‘May cause respiratory irritation’
Furthermore, the GHS ‘Risk Statement’, a similar glossary, classifies NIPA5 under article codes 38-40
38 – ‘Irritating to the skin’
39 – ‘Danger of very serious irreversible effects’
40 – ‘Limited evidence of a carcinogenic effect’
So, NIPA5 is a skin and eye irritant, which has permeated over 30,000 tons of earth around the factory to a depth of 7 meters, and it is water soluble at local sea temperatures. Apparently, it reacts with seawater to create the yellow discoloration. Oh, and it could cause cancer. The fact that this chemical is seeping into the nearby ocean, and has been since before the explosion, is a testament to decades of IMI unaccountability for its shoddy safety standards. The fact that the Ministry of Environmental Protection claimed, through an external study, that NIPA5 is harmless to humans, despite it being classified as a serious eye and skin irritant with danger 12 of ‘very serious irreversible effects’ is a testament to the fundamental issue when it comes to Israeli government’s environmental efforts; a faulty bureaucracy which serves to maintain the status quo, and nothing more.
Closer observation produced another discrepancy. According to a similar standardized glossary of pictograms compiled by the UN, NIPA5 falls under pictogram GHS07 – EXCLAMATION MARK
Associated hazard details are as such:
Acute toxicity (oral, dermal, inhalation), category 4
Skin irritation, category 2
Eye irritation, category 2
Skin sensitisation, category 1
Specific Target Organ Toxicity – Single exposure, category 3
Signs at the site itself, however, use pictogram GHS06 – SKULL AND CROSSBONES
Acute toxicity (oral, dermal, inhalation), categories 1,2,3
Acute toxicity is not equivalent to eye/skin irritation. There is something else at play here; NIPA5 is not
the only chemical present in the soil surrounding the factory, especially considering the 2005 report compiled by the city office of Herzliya, which states that “We have discovered that the chemical is not harmful to humans.
There is, however, a possibility that other chemical compounds, dangerous ones, are contaminating the seawater but the presence of these has not been investigated in this report.”
The other chemicals they are referencing, but wish to keep away from the public discussion, are as follows: Propellants NQ and NC; nitroisophthalic acid; TPH and metals; Sodium Azide (NAN3); ethanol; fuel; ether. The presence of these chemicals is known. I found this information on a website which provides ground survey information for prospective developers to access. I assume the skull and crossbones signs were put up around 2002 in accordance with UN regulations, regulations which, unlike those imposed upon them internally, Israeli environmental authorities did not wish to reckon with.
Out of sight, out of mind.
A 2002 cleanup effort in the northern sector included transferring tons of contaminated earth to the southern sector, while large areas of land were purposefully ignited in order to burn away certain explosive materials. Since then, little has been done to restore the land to its original state. This is largely due to the cost of such an operation. A survey conducted on a similar IMI site in Givatayim placed a price tag of over 100 million NIS (+-30 million USD) on a soil restoration project. This is money local and state authorities simply do not have access to. And so, a committee was put together, comprising of government and private representatives, to discuss a clever financial maneuver. Developers have been eyeing the area for years, knowing that the soil contamination prevents them from receiving permits necessary for development. A deal was struck. The land, which is currently in the possession of the Israel Land Authority , would be sold to developers, providing the capital needed to clean up the soil. One of the conditions for this deal: a development project would be pre-approved.
Representatives from Israel’s Water Authority were barred from these meetings. The development plan includes over 3000 apartment units, 3 hotels, and 100,000 square meters of commercial space. The tallest of these apartment blocks are planned to reach 26 storeys, a height which requires foundations that dip well into the water table.
To breach the water table would be equivalent to releasing millions of gallons of toxic water into a network of natural reservoirs that serve the entire region. This wouldn’t be a one time occurrence either. Contaminated water would resaturate these reservoirs every single time it rains, again and again, until the chemicals run their course and dissipate entirely into the ocean, or out through millions of taps across Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Ramat Hasharon, and several other population centers.
This is the way Apollonia stands today. A small stretch of land that has served many purposes through its tenure. Coveted by conquerors for its geographic traits, reinforced, patrolled, fought over, died over. A trade center, a pit stop for sailors along the eastern Mediterranean trade routes. It has provided fertile soil – terraced, farmed, abandoned, washed away. Oak wood – forested, razed, repurposed. It has provided shelter – for tortoises and burrowing owls, vipers, parakeets. For Israel’s wars, it has provided shelter as well – an arena for industry, concealed, tucked away, unexamined. It is a wilderness for those occupants of an industrialized land who are deprived of natural beauty to the extent that their very concept of wilderness has been reduced to a few square kilometers of noxious sandstone. It seems as though it is on the precipice of new purpose. Change is coming, and for the first time in the history of the area, this change is looking to be irreversible. A toxic chemical factory is one hazard, but a housing development of this scale spells a certain end to the meagre systems of life remaining. We are speaking of concrete, byways, and landscaping. There will be no more Apollonia, no more wellhouse, no more dog walkers.
No more buffer, or border line. Herzliya will have no edge. If you envision Israel’s coastal plane as a puzzle, the development projects as pieces, one can make the observation that those spaces left incomplete take the shape of the puzzle pieces themselves. This small rectangle of land, which was once, long ago, positive space, is now negative space, an anomaly, a perfectly rectangular slot for our right-angled domiciles. The modern state of Israel has, for the most part, disregarded its natural areas in the pursuit of a stable economy. In the case of Apollonia, environmental disregard has taken precedence over economic development. It seems as though the only way to save Apollonia was to make it inaccessible for anyone who would like to turn it into profit.
Did I mention the Gazelle? A family of Gazelle lives in the factory, a dozen or so. If you are quiet you might spot them, usually around sundown. If my mind is in a place to be receptive to such things, the sight of them transforms the tame plot into a shabby savannah. They seem to evoke something primal in my dog, as well. His ears and nostrils stiffen, as if he has become suddenly conscious of them, of his own body. He takes control of the moment, as deer are his realm of authority, not mine. I let him loose and he shoots out into the tall grass. There is much more to be said about, thought about, places like Apollonia.