In the past couple of months, a tense dispute over whether to close a large tank containing ammonia (a chemical compound common in industry but deadly to humans if exposed) in Haifa has been loudly played out in the streets, courts and government of Israel.
Since Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah threatened to attack the tank last year, the fate of the contentious facility, which employs 1,500 Israelis, has sparked national debate.
This issue, which has garnered many headlines in recent weeks because of large protests staged by facility employees who fear losing their jobs, hits on some of Israel’s core, historical tensions.
Israel’s minute size, limited natural resources, growing population and constant existential threats have forced the Jewish state to continually strike a balance among the often-conflicting needs of economic prosperity, protection of the environment and maintenance of the level of security necessary to ensure the safety of Israel’s citizens.
Those three issues, equally important to Israel’s survival as a state, lay at the core of the debate about how to handle the ammonia tank.
A report drafted by members of Israel’s scientific community in January suggests that should the facility be attacked or suffer a natural disaster, tens of thousands of Haifa residents could be killed.
Further, should the ship that delivers the monthly supply of ammonia to Haifa’s port be attacked, hundreds of thousands of Israelis could die, with devastating environmental impacts to the region.
Despite that ominous warning, Israeli agricultural and chemical industry representatives, who rely on the ammonia for their businesses, have lobbied Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to keep the facility active.
The protesting employees of the chemical company charge that should the government allow the facility’s closure, it would be neglecting the economic needs of Israel’s often-impoverished periphery.
Haifa courts, informed by the January report, have ordered that the tank be closed by June 1. But Netanyahu is consulting with the Ministry of the Environment to find an alternative to closing the facility.
Whatever the eventual outcome, Israel will have to decide which needs of the state and its citizens take priority.