Israeli PM Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not commented on a new Israeli Ministry of Health report on cases of childhood lung cancer in Haifa. Reuters/Ammar Awad

ISTANBUL – In the last decade, doctors in Israel diagnosed 30 children with cancer who all might have avoided the disease if their government had enforced stricter regulations on factories and oil refinery plants in Haifa, environmental activists and officials at the Israeli Ministry of Health said.

The Health Ministry released a report last month that said over the past decade, of the 780 individuals in Haifa who contracted cancer as a result of air pollution, 30 were children. The report, written by Prof. Itamar Grotto, director of Public Health Services at the Health Ministry, said the chances of contracting lung cancer in Haifa are 29 percent higher than anywhere else in the country and the risk of contracting bladder cancer in Haifa is 26 percent higher than anywhere else in Israel. The report also said that the number of children in Haifa under the age of 14 who contracted cancer is twice the national average.

Grotto submitted the report to the Appeals Committee of the National Planning and Building Council, an Israeli governmental office that oversees construction in Haifa, but it was ultimately ignored, said Maya Jacobs, the executive director of Israel’s Environmental Association, one of the leading environmental activist and policy groups in the country. She said it is a clear indication that the Israeli government is not doing enough to protect the environment.

“There are very few government officials that support environmentalists. I can count them on one hand," Jacobs said. "The majority of the leadership think of the environmentalists as people that stop progress.”

The Israeli government, including newly re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has not responded directly to the Health Ministry’s report on Haifa. Netanyahu's social policies, especially those concerning the environment, have angered officials in the Environmental Protection Ministry. Last year, Amir Peretz, then head of the department, resigned, citing fundamental disagreements with Netanyahu on running the ministry.

Environmental groups say the central government in Israel, which is supposed to oversee all the ministries, has not adequately overseen the Environmental Protection Ministry – the ministry that is supposed to monitor pollution levels like the ones that factored into the 30 children’s cancer diagnoses in Haifa.

"We're dealing with an ongoing oversight on the part of the Health Ministry, the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Haifa Municipality, which fail to cede to our demands to remove the hazardous materials and prevent the refineries from expanding their operations," the Green Course environmental organization, an Israeli environmental nonprofit, said in a statement following the publishing of the report. The organization said more than 800,000 lives are at risk because of Haifa's pollution levels.

Israel's state comptroller’s office earlier this month found that the Environmental Protection Ministry failed in its monitoring of industrial pollution and did not force factories to comply with antipollution laws, according to local media reports. Jacobs says the Environmental Protection Ministry and Energy Ministry lie at the crux of Israel’s pollution issue.

“We have a weak ministry of environmental protection,” she said. “For example, there is an entire area where offshore drilling still doesn't have proper regulations. We have a law from the 1950s that addresses offshore drilling but does not have an environmental clause in it. The minister of energy and environmental protection in Israel has been pushing off any attempt to change it. It’s not a money issue. It is about ego and ignorance.”

The Environmental Protection Ministry refused to share the list of plants in Haifa responsible for the contamination, according to a statement by the mayor of Haifa, Yona Yahav. The ministry also did not reveal the contamination levels of each plant.

Yahav responded harshly to Health Ministry’s report, saying: "The government ministries, whose job it is to protect the people of the north, have undermined and thwarted every effort on the part of the authorities in the region to put an end to the dangers."

But Yahav later retracted some of his words after being pressured by Netanyahu, Jacobs said.

"There has been back and forth between all the industries and no one is actually doing anything about the report," she said.

The government's negligence is actually damaging Israel's reputation and energy independence, said David Krantz, president of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism, an environmental nonprofit that focuses on creating a sustainable Israel.

Krantz said Israel has one of the lowest renewable-energy rates of all the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members. "And without greater political efforts, that's unlikely to change," he said. "Israel is on track to miss its own targets for renewable-energy production."

Jacobs said that though the health ministry's report on Haifa "brought environmental back into the spotlight," the environmental activism community has actually been growing for the past several years. "I think that we have in the past month or so leapfrogged a bit and gained some traction."

Still, though, Jacobs and Krantz both say the Israeli government has a long way to go to bring the country up to international environmental standards.

“There is no real planning process for environmental protection," Jacobs said. "[The politicians] just want to push forward and not stop and think about the consequences of their actions."