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Israel Environment & Nature: National Parks & Nature Reserves

List of Parks & Reserves

National Parks - Overview

The National Parks Authority was established by law in 1963 to take over the functions carried out from 1956 (with the same staff) by the Department for Landscaping and the Preservation of Historic Sites in the prime minister's office. These functions are: the preparation, laying out, and maintenance of park areas for the general public; the restoration, landscaping, and preservation of historical and archaeological sites; the construction of access roads and amenities for recreation and leisure; and, in the case of ancient sites, the provision of explanatory notice boards and pamphlets. The Authority has also established museums at several historic sites.

Israel is rich in biblical sites and the remains of post-biblical Jewish, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, and Crusader settlements, often in surroundings of beauty, and most of the national parks have been linked with these sites. Many had suffered from centuries of neglect, since they were of little interest to the successive occupying authorities. The Authority had to clear overgrowth and thick layers of debris, undertake restoration programs where possible, and provide amenities and access for visitors, both local and from overseas. Some parks were laid out without any connection with a historic site, in order to preserve rural areas from the encroachment of urban development. Occasionally, archaeological sites were taken over for preservation and maintenance by the Authority, where the excavations had been particularly dramatic, as at Masada ; or where scholars had made spectacular finds of wide public interest, as at Hazor , the Bet She'arim necropolis, the ancient synagogues at Bet Alfa , Baram , and Hammath (Tiberias), the Roman theater at Caesarea , and the excavations at Bet Yeraḥ and Ramat Raḥel . At some sites the National Parks Authority was responsible for the excavations, undertaken by specially commissioned archaeologists, as well as for their restoration and current maintenance. Examples are: the Crusader city of Caesarea, complete with moat, walls, gates, and towers; the crypt, tunnels, and some of the walls of Crusader Acre ; the castles of Yehi'am and Belvoir; the Roman theater at Beth-Shean ; the Nabatean-Byzantine city of Avedat , with its citadel, acropolis, and two churches; and the Nabatean cities of Shivta and Kurnub. At Masada, much of the restoration work was carried out at the same time as the excavations.

The Authority is also responsible for sites designated as national parks. Those already open to the public, in addition to the ones already mentioned, are: Ḥurshat Tal in Upper Galilee, with its streams, pond, lawns, and woods; the spring, bathing pool, and woodland slopes of Ma'ayan Ḥarod in the Valley of Jezreel; the three natural pools and landscaped banks of Gan ha-Sheloshah, also in Jezreel; the seashore park and antiquities of Ashkelon ; the natural pools of Ein Avedat in the northern Negev; the 25,000-acre parkland and forest of Carmel; and the Crusader remains at Aqua Bella (Ein Ḥemed) near Jerusalem. The Authority has also renovated some of the medieval synagogues of Safed, and improved the amenities at the tomb of Maimonides in Tiberias. It has carried out site-improvement work at Mount Zion in Jerusalem and at the tomb of R. Simeon b. Yoḥai at Meron . The Authority was one of the initiators in setting up the park at Yad Mordekhai , which contains a reconstruction of the Egyptian attack on the kibbutz in 1948 and a small museum devoted to the defense of the southern kibbutzim during the War of Independence. Among the new parks for which plans have already been completed by the Authority is the Jerusalem national park–a green belt circling the Old City walls and covering 500 acres. The number of visitors to the national parks in 1968 exceeded 2,000,000.

In 1998 the National Parks Authority was united with the Nature Reserves Authority as the Israel Nature and Park Authority. The new Authority's goal is to preserve Israel's green areas in the face of rapid urban development, increasing transportation needs, and the steep growth of Israel's population. The Authority's tasks are to locate sites for the establishment of nature reserves and national parks; to establish, maintain, and manage existing reserves and parks; to oversee natural resources; to initiate educational activities; and to conduct research on nature preservation. The Authority is responsible for 380 nature reserves spread over 2,350 sq. mi. (6,130 sq. km.) and 115 national parks spread over 140 sq. mi. (370 sq. km.). Fifty-eight nature reserves and national parks are open to the public, with over 10 million visitors in 2003.

Nature Reserves - Overview

Despite its limited area, Israel has an extraordinarily varied landscape and a rich array of flora and fauna. There are some 2,800 different species of wild plants (150 of them indigenous) – an extremely high number in relation to the area – in its three geobotanical regions: Mediterranean, Saharo-Sindi, and Irano-Turani, as well as enclaves of tropical and European flora, the most northern and southern known. About 250 of the plants are endemic. The fauna is also varied, though it is only a remnant of the wild life of biblical times; at least 15 large mammalian species have become extinct. There are more than 20 varieties of freshwater fish, several species of amphibians and eight of reptiles, and 380 varieties of birds (150 of which nest in Israel, the remainder being migratory or winter visitors). Israel hosts over 150 million migratory birds each year during the spring and fall seasons. In addition, there are about 70 species of mammals, mostly small rodents and bats. Gazelle, wild boar, ibex, hyena, wolf, jackal, hyrax, caracal, and lynx are still to be found.

The dynamic development of modern Israel has inevitably affected plant and animal ecology. Some 500 new villages and a score of new towns, as well as the rapid expansion of existing ones, have encroached on areas of hitherto undisturbed wild life and natural vegetation. The quadrupling of the population, the rise in the standard of living, and the vast expansion of tourism, have brought large numbers of hikers and trippers to the countryside.

To protect the flora and fauna, a Nature Reserves Authority was established by the government in 1963. Some 380 areas have been selected as nature reserves in which landscape, flora, and fauna are protected in their natural condition. Some are large reserves, in which the flora and fauna maintain an equilibrium, for instance on Mt. Meron (about 70,000 dunams: 17,500 acres). There are also the smaller areas maintained for specific scientific reasons, e.g., winter pools to preserve lower crustacea and amphibians, a ridge of sandstone with its typical flora, islands on which common tern nest, and sites such as Ḥorshat Tal and Circassia as reminders of the landscape that once existed. While most of the reserves are open to the public, some are closed to preserve their scientific value. Facilities for visitors have been provided at Tel Dan, the "Tannur" near Metullah, the cave of "Pa'ar," the "Masrek" near Jerusalem, En-Gedi, etc., and the work is being extended to other places throughout the country. The Nature Reserves Authority has also undertaken to reintroduce species that have become extinct in Israel. At the Ḥai-Bar (wildlife) Biblical Game Reserve at Yotvata (34,500 dunams; 8,650 acres), attempts were begun in 1966 to breed some of these extinct species, with the approval of the World Wildlife Fund. Another Hai-Bar is located on Mt. Carmel (6,000 dunams; 1,500 acres) and includes species that used to live on the mountain. In 1998 the Nature Reserves Authority became part of the Israel Nature and Park Authority, a combined authority responsible for all the natural and archeological reserves and parks in Israel.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.