When a group of Australian athletes attempted to cross the hastily constructed bridge erected over the Yarkon river, tragedy struck. The bridge collapsed, sending tens of young people plunging into the contaminated waters of the Yarkon River. Instead of competing at what many have called the Jewish Olympics (the international athletic competition called the HaMaccabiah Games) some of these Australians found themselves fighting for their lives in Israeli hospital intensive care centres. Apart from the expected trauma of a bridge collapse many were suffering complications suffered from inadvertently swallowing the poisonous waters of the Yarkon. Police rescue workers who waded into the sewage filled waters to rescue the athletes also were hospitalised, suffering from exposure to the high levels of poisonous substances used to coat the waters against the mosquitoes.

Dr. Eli Richter, Head of Environmental Medicine for Hebrew University, told Hebcom, “The medical problems of the victims were seriously complicated by the toxic substances in the waters of the Yarkon. Swallowing the waters and absorbtion through the skin negatively effected the victoms’ vital organs and pulmonary system.” Dr. Richter went on to say that toxic waste substances in the Yarkon seems to be a “never ending story.”

Israeli authorities suspect that faulty bridge construction caused the collapse. The chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Israel Lau, stated that this tragedy is an indictment of Israeli indifference to human life in general. “We don’t pay enough respect to the value of human life, if we can do something as idiotic as this, which cost human lives.” He went on to connect what happened to the high level of traffic and industrial fatalities that occur in Israel yearly. He also implied that this disregard for the rights and safety of our fellow citizens is the real cause of the problem, ” It must shock us out of our apathy in the face of growing numbers of victims of work accidents and road accidents. What they have in common is a lack of proper respect for the value of the sanctity of life.”

Whatever the findings of the Israeli court of enquiry which has been appointed to determine if the bridge was safe, they will probably address themselves to the issue itself and not the cause. It is likely that the pollution levels of the Yarkon River will hardly be discussed at all. In this atmosphere of negligence in the building industry, in transportation, and in factory safety it comes as no surprise to find that the waters of the Yarkon are as deadly as the poorly constructed bridge which spaned it.

Rabbi Lau placed saw beyond the event and addressed the real cause; a lack of a basic bio-ethic awareness which could provide a safe human environment for the regions citizens as the century ends. Dr. Frank (Yeruham) Leavitt, of the Ben Gurion University Medical Ethics Center stated, “The Jewish people have lived so long in Exile, in lands not our own, that we never leared to love and respect the land. It will take years to build a culture with a bio-ethic oriented love for the environment.”

The problems of pollution started long before the emergence of the state of Israel. Josephus, the ancient historian, writes about the pollution of lake Kennerit during the Jewish Wars when the waters were tainted red by Jewish blood and that floating Jewish bodies made it difficult to manoeuvre a boat. Josephus gave us what was perhaps one of the first chronicles of a major man-made ecological disaster.

Today’s pollution is sewage, industrial waste, and insecticides; but, like the wages of war, the results of indifference to a safe human environment can be equally catastrophic for the area’s residents. The almost total disregard shown by the Israelis for their environment is now being mirrored by the newly emerging Palestinian Authority who do not see human and environmental issues as being their number 1 priority. One of the major architects of the Oslo peace accords, M.K. Jossi Sarrid, who served under Rabin and Peres as the Minister of the Environment, apparently didn’t place the Yarkon Pollution problem very high on his list of priorities. His pre-occupation with the endless Oslo peace process obviously cut drastically into his environmental work load.

The by-pass roads, which were hastily cut through vineyards and natural drainage areas, were built in great haste by the labour government. They were built without the proper commissioning of an environmental impact study which would address the issues pertaining to agronomic needs in the arid Judea and Samaria semi-desert region. The price of these roads may ultimately be higher than M.K. Sarid, the former Minister of the Environment, could have possibly envisioned.

The present Minister, Raful (Rafiel Eitan, former IDF Commanding General), evidently is continuing his predecessors’ level of Environmental Activism. Reports indicate that very high levels of pesticides were pumped into the Yarkon only three days before the tragedy. There is no indication that the possibility of children or animals inadvertently drinking these poisoned waters were taken into account by any responsible environmental protection agency or citizens’ group. It is probable that none were even informed that the pesticides were being used in such an un-regulated land obviously irresponsible manner.

The issues of water pollution in general, and of the problems of the Yarkon in particular, were aired many times on Israeli Television and Radio over the past twenty years.

In a country whose pre-occupation has shifted from survival to becoming a “first world” nation, the issues of the environment have had little impact on the average Israeli. It is to be hoped that this tragedy will bring the struggle for environmental and human bio-ethics to the attention of the area’s lawmakers.

Unfortunately, another round of peace talks may push what happened into the limbo of “yesterday’s news”. This warning to both Israeli and Palestinian alike, could go unheeded… and if so, the price of peace will be a peace without joy.