THE Holy Land images celebrated in countless Christmas carols - of shepherds grazing their flocks on rocky hillsides - may soon be little more than memory here.
Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip are undergoing a peacetime population and development boom that is gradually erasing the Biblical landscape - while transforming the region into one of the most densely inhabited corners of earth.
From a hilltop vantage point between Jerusalem and Bethlehem - the site of an environmental conference held last week by the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information - one can observe the dramatic changes under way.
Terraced hillsides where Palestinian farmers have cultivated olive trees for centuries, and fields and pine forests planted by the first Jewish immigrants are all being bulldozed for new housing and highways.
``Nature has retreated from the West Bank,'' says Palestinian anthropologist Ali Kleibo, writing in ``Our Shared Environment,'' an Israeli-Palestinian anthology of environmental issues both peoples face.
Some of the peacetime development plans being eagerly promoted by Israeli and Arab leaders could spell ecological disaster for this land and water-scarce region, warned Israeli and Palestinian environmentalists meeting here for the first time ever.
Several problems were emphasized:
* A combined Israeli and Palestinian population that will grow from today's 7.4 million to nearly 11 million by the year 2010, even without a return of significant numbers of Palestinian refugees. The Palestinian birth rate of roughly 5 percent annually is among the highest in the world, while Israel's population growth rate of 2.6 percent annually is the highest in the developed world.
* Israeli coastal urban centers and the West Bank towns of East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, and Ramallah are merging into continuous chains of urban sprawl. If the conversion of agricultural land to housing development in central Israel at a rate of 3 percent annually continues, metropolitan Tel Aviv and Jerusalem could eventually merge in a giant megalopolis, Israeli planners warn.
* Israel, a state born with the vision of making the desert bloom, is now paving much of it over in concrete. Planned peacetime transport development plans, including a new multibillion dollar regional-highway grid, canals, and oil pipelines could transform Israel and parts of the West Bank into what the mass-circulation Israeli daily Yedioth Aharanoth recently dubbed the ``Central Bus Station'' of the Middle East.
* The last 90 kilometers (56 miles) of open Israeli beach front is rapidly being developed into a continuous urban strip of high-rise housing, hotel, industrial, and marina complexes. Development plans for Gaza follow a similar pattern, according to a team of Dutch planners who have drafted land-use surveys in the Palestinian self-rule areas.
* Air pollution from uncontrolled growth in Israeli traffic and lax vehicle-emissions enforcement is approaching levels of highly polluted cities such as Athens, Greece, and Los Angeles, warns Menachem Lurie, director of the air pollution research unit at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
As the pollution drifts west, Palestinian air also is being polluted. Due partly to a lack of government investment in public-transport systems, the number of vehicles on Israeli roads is projected to rise from today's 1.3 million to 3 million cars in 2010 - or 20 percent more cars per square kilometer than tiny Holland.
* The region's water resources are shrinking at the same time that demands created by future population growth will exceed today's available supply. Gaza's aquifer is 80 percent contaminated with sea water and sewage. The last clean water reserves will be gone within 15 years, according to a team of Dutch hydrologists who are now surveying the damage.
Water supply threatened
Israel's coastal aquifer, which supplies major Israeli urban centers, may likewise be rendered useless by wholesale sewage, hazardous and solid waste contamination, and sea water intrusion from overpumping within a generation, warns a former Israeli water commissioner Dan Zaslawsky. And a second, high- quality acquifer under the West Bank, which supplies thousands of Palestinians as well as parts of Israel, is slowly being contaminated due to the complete absence of Palestinian sewage treatment.
* Land, water, and nature sites across Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza are being contaminated by solid waste from 1,000 crude landfills lacking modern design or controls. Israelis today throw out 3.8 pounds of trash per person - a higher per capita rate than any country except for the United States and Canada - and only 4 percent of Israeli trash is recycled. In the West Bank only about 30 percent of the trash is even collected.
* The Negev Desert, Israel's last expanse of real wilderness, has also become the country's nuclear and hazardous waste dump with poisons seeping into air and underground water from the poorly maintained Ramat Hovav hazardous waste-dumping site near Beersheva, and nuclear waste from the Dimona nuclear reactor stored at an undisclosed site. Israel's Electric Company is making long-term plans to build a civilian nuclear reactor at the ancient Nabatean city of Shivta along the Egyptian border. Israelis and Palestinians, locked for decades in a struggle for political control have spent little time or energy considering how to preserve the land holy to Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
``There is an enormous gap between the passion for the land and the reality of decisionmaking,'' says Alon Tal, Israel's foremost environmental lawyer and director of the nonprofit Union for Environmental Defense in Tel Aviv.
While in the early days of the state, Israel pioneered the development of water-saving drip irrigation methods, solar hot-water heating, and reforestation, today's more affluent generation has discarded many of the conservation habits of their parents.
In Israel, per capita household energy use has doubled in a decade. Disposable items such as shopping bags and diapers have replaced reusables. Compact cities of the 1960s built around public transportation have given way to US-style suburban tracts of ``villas,'' accessible only by car.
``If there is no control, all agricultural land in central Israel will soon disappear,'' warns Arie Rahamimoff, a director of a new government-sponsored master plan for Israel in 2020.
Development on fast track
In comparison to the powerful lobbies in Europe, the Israeli environmental movement lacks political clout to slow down development. Israeli Trade, Treasury, Interior, and Housing Ministry officials have opposed environmentalist proposals to stiffen lax planning procedures, increase investments in public-transport systems, and mandate recycling.
Environmentalists fighting the creation of a new $1.8 billion superhighway through the last ``green lungs'' of central Israel face an uphill battle in convincing government officials that the rail development - which lags 50 years behind that of Europe - could ease some of the demand on overburdened roads and better concentrate future growth.
``Present government policy is a catastrophe,'' says retired Knesset member Yosef Tamir, considered to be the grandfather of Israel's fledgling environmental movement. ``We have failed to learn from the experience of other rapidly growing regions....''
In the Palestinian territories, meanwhile, environmental problems are compounded by poverty, underdevelopment, and the continuing Israeli occupation of most of the West Bank and parts of Gaza. Sewage treatment in the West Bank is nonexistent and land-use planning has been used as a political tool, says Jad Isaac, director of the ad-hoc Palestinian Environmental Protection Authority.
Topsoil erosion has become a problem in the West Bank as the ancient terraces that made the rocky hills fertile are abandoned by Palestinian farmers who find low-paying jobs in cities. The refuse of sprawling West Bank cities is contaminating once-pristine sites in the Judean desert, says Monis Abu Asab, assistant professor of plant biology at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University.
Facing up to responsibility
Despite the pressing problems, the recent interim peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians fails to give either Israel or the Palestinians clear jurisdiction over environmental legislation and standards in the occupied territories. Palestinian environmentalists say clear environmental standards are needed to cope with expected industrial investment and to do land planning for expected population growth.
``The situation is urgent. We must legislate before we are deluged with investors and corporations who establish facts on the ground,'' warns Mohammed Ajjour, director of environmental planning for the newly established Palestinian Authority.
Yet environmental activists are deeply worried that the adoption of stiff new environmental legislation for the West Bank - like in Israel - will be delayed until it is too late to save key sections of the rich and varied Biblical landscape, which inspired generations of prophets and poets.
``When I first came here in 1950, I thought this was one of the most beautiful countries in the world,'' says Robin Twite, a long-time British resident, and one of the organizers of last week's environmental conference. ``Now, 45 years later, I'm afraid this historical place will be lost to future generations.''