The Voice of America Project in Israel and Migrating Birds

A bird in its flight

Case Number: 401

Case Mnemonic: ISRBIRD

Case Name: Israel birds and broadcasting


1. The issue:

On June 1987 the governments of Israel and the U.S.A. signed an agreement to build a transmitter for the Voice of America (VOA) in the Arava desert of Israel. This transmitter was meant to assist broadcasting to different parts of Eastern Europe and Asia. The location of the transmitter in Israel was soon questioned by Israeli environmentalists and Arava residents. They claimed that this transmitter would be hazard to the environment. Their main argument was that the transmitter would pose a health risk to residents of the area, and would harm a large variety of birds that pass through this area on their migration from Europe to Africa and back. The main Israeli organization - the Society for the Protection of nature in Israel(SPNI) - began a long dispute against the American project. On Feb 1993, the U.S. government decided to cancel the project in Israel and relocate the transmitter to Kuwait.

2. Description:

In the beginning of the 1980's, the United States decided to expand the world wide broadcasts of the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe, and Radio of Liberty. The main target was to broadcast to the Central Asian Region of the Soviet Union, an area that was experiencing ongoing tensions (Roman, p.38). In the former communism regimes' programs in democracy building and free market economics would serve important U.S. interests (Holmes, February 1993). In addition, the U.S. government tryied to overcome Soviet jamming of U.S. broadcasting. Therefore, in order to ensure a good transmission, the VOA used satellite and short waves relay stations. Such stations had to be built in strategic place. Strategic in the sense that it would block Russian electronic transmitters (Roman, p.38).

Researchers found ideal places for this transmitter in different locations in the Middle East, including Turkey, Iran, and Egypt. However, Turkey was not willing to create possible tensions with the former USSR, the new Iranian regime would not cooperate with the U.S. project, and Egypt rejected the proposal to locate the transmitter there (Roman, p.38).

The next option was to built the transmitter in Israel. In 1985, while visiting the U.S., the Israeli Prime minister Shimon Peres was personally asked by the American President Ronald Reagan to allow the construction of the project inside Israel. Peres agreed and upon his return to Israel instructed the Israeli Departments of Defense and Communication to prepare for the transmitters' construction (Roman, p.38).

The VOA, after a thorough search, determined that the best location in Israel would be in the northern part of the Arava, the section of the Negev that stretches from the southern tip of the Dead sea to Eilat. This location favored both by VOA and the Israeli government, was between two moshavim (collective farms): Idan and Hatzeva.

For more infrormation on the Arava - select
'Arava Institute For Environmental Studies.'

The Israeli government estimated that the VOA project has a significent impact on the country. It seemed that consent to the transmitter not only would be a friendly gesture to the U.S., but it would also benefit the economic development of the Arava (SPNI, January 1990).

In 1987, the final agreement wasViews of survey on VOA site (U.S.I.A) signed by the Israeli government and the VOA. However, early in the planning of the station in the Arava, the project faced obstacles through criticism of the location. First, the chosen location was adjacent to a fire-zone that was used by the Israeli Air Force. Relocating the fire-zone would be very expensive and could lead to major inconveniences to Arava residents.

Another problem was the possible radiation affect. The exposure to electromagnetic radiation (EMR), in this case from high frequency radio waves, could be a health hazard to the public.

Studies suggest that even weak EMR may promote leukemia and cancer, cause learning difficulties, and lead to spontaneous abortion (Ben-Shaul, p.1). In the case of the VOA transmitter there was no evident that the level of EMR from the transmitter would be a hazard to health. Moreover, an expert witness for the VOA, Dr. E, Adair denied the possible damage claiming that the station has 'emissions that are within accepted standards' (Ben-Shaul, p.4).

The confusion and the lack of research in this area of exposure made it impossible to determine whether these specific electromagnetic fields (from the VOA transmitter) would have a negative affect on people's health. Residents of the Arava and the Negev began to oppose the project for its potential health risk (The Jerusalem Post, 8/21/92).

In addition to the possible health threat, the transmitter seemed to have an adverse affect on natural wild life. The station, which would be the world's largest radio transmitting station, would consist of 37 antennas of up to 558 feet in height. Beyond the fact that they would not fit the natural landscape of the desert, the station would be located on a major path for migrating birds (Havemann, 1990). This migration of birds through Israel is one of the most spectacular natural phenomena in that country. Since the discovery of this phenomena in the 1960's scientists have noticed millions of different species of birds passing through Israel each autumn and spring on their journey to and from Europe and Africa. According to surveys conducted by the Israeli Air Force and the SPNI about 75,000 Steppe eagles, 10,000 common cranes, white storks, and other species fly over Israel between the end of October and mid-November (Collins, 10/6/92). At least two-thirds of these birds, including millions of song birds, pass over the Arava (Roman, p.39).

The tremendous importance of Israel as a path for migrating birds has to do with its geographical location within three continents and its topographical conditions. The location of Israel in a narrow valley of the Syrian-Rift Valley creates warm air streams in which soaring birds can easily fly (Fromkin, 1989/90). In addition, Israel's location on the edge of the desert enables migrating birds to stop to replenish before or after crossing the desert. Migrating birds can utilize the fruitful oases in the agricultural settlements of the Arava Valley (Leshem, 1/18/1993).

Glider and flight of pelicans (U.S.I.A) The SPNI conducted a special survey in the Arava valley in 1987. This survey found that, during the spring of 1987, more than 30,000 storks passed the valley, and 10,000 of them stopped for a night break in the specific area that was meant for the VOA transmitter (Fromkin, 1989/90).

Select Birds for more information on migrating birds in Israel.

The SPNI required that a thorough investigation would determine the extent to which the station might be effective. Their main fear was that such large transmitter would pose the danger of collision and/or hart the birds through its EMR.

The possible danger of collisions means that migrating birds can physically collide with the high antennas of the transmitter. Birds that migrate during night time and small birds that fly on a low altitude were most likely to be hurt (Mitrani Center, September 1992).

The EMR can disrupt the bird's navigation system and cause them to a significant stray in their usual migration route. Even a small stray can cause the birds to lose their way and be lost (Perlman, 1990). Also, the EMR has thermal influence that might raise the birds' body heat. The longer a bird is exposed to this radiation the larger the risk. An international survey submitted by TOMER (an Israeli government body that was in charge of the project) stated that large birds that weigh more than four kilograms would be at risk from the transmitter's radiation (Collins, 6/10/ 1992) . The probability of risk could be even higher in the VOA location since many birds have been recorded stopping to rest in the area (Leshem).

Any interference with the migrating birds' path has a tremendous affect on the ecological cycle. Any damage to birds of prey could directly decrease the number of rodents and field mice in Eastern Europe, since this kind of animals serves as these birds main food source. Increases in the number of mice and other rodents might lead to increases in human epidemics as well as damage to fields and agriculture (Roman, p.39).

After learning about all these possible problems to the environment and the inhabitants of the Arava, the SPNI, together with local residents and environmental groups around the world, began a long struggle to stop the transmitter's construction (Sagi, p.58). Nevertheless, thorough research was necessary in order to further detail the affects of the transmitter on migrating birds and the affect of the electromagnet radiation on human health. The VOA, the Israeli government, and the SPNI have conducted such studies.

Correspondence and statements between both sides have stressed their stances on the controversy. In 1990 Malcolm S. Forbes Jr., chairman of the U.S. Board for International Broadcasting, testified that 'the Israeli relay station is more critical than ever' as it might have a special impact on 'an area of ongoing tension', the Soviet Union. Forbes also mentioned the fact that the station would be used to reach 'parts of Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe where its signal was weak' (Havemann). As a reaction to the possible dangers to migrating birds, Forbes said that "migratory birds along the Eastern Sea board have flown over high-powered transmitters for years with no evidence of interference...and the antennas have been covered so that there will be no fried birds" (Havemann).

Responding to the concerns of Arava residents in regard to the electromagnetic affect, environmental architect Dan Stav (responsible for the VOA project at the Israeli Environment Ministry) stated that the size of the site's field needed to be examined carefully. He stressed that there were no indications of danger to human health. But that the study of the possible negative affect of radio transmitter is still a new field and therefore must be further explored (Perlman). Forbes, for his part, responded that 'shortwave broadcasting has long been recognized as a very safe industry to the environment, one of the safest in the world' and that the only serious issue was the possible relocation of the Israeli Air Force base (Havemann).

In June 1989, after giving its agreement to the transmitter's construction, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) changed its mind regarding the location of the station. The IAF realized that the transmitter might affect the planes' electronic control system and decided that relocating the whole Air Force base would be necessary (Roman, p.39).

In June 28, 1991, despite the support given by the Israeli government to the VOA project, the Israel High Court of Justice publicly respond to the appeal of the SPNI and the residents of the Arava. The decision, written by three Justices, was that there was reasonable basis to believe that the VOA station would constitute a major threat to the Israeli environment. Therefore, 'no decision should be taken on the location of the VOA complex before making thorough studies on possible dangers to birds' (Sagi, p.58). Two years later, on February 1993, the VOA project in Israel was terminated when the U.S. government ordered the relocation of the transmitter to Kuwait.

We do not know the reasons for the U.S. government's decision to terminate the VOA project in Israel. It is possible that the strong opposition within Israel influenced the American decision. However, it is very likely that the collapse of USSR and the end of the cold war were the real reason for that decision. With the end of the cold war there was no longer real necessity of having a transmitter that was originally intended to overcome Soviet jamming of U.S. broadcasting. At this point this objective became an anarchonism.

3. Related Cases:

1.Birds Case

2.Thaibird Case

3.Crane Case

4.Migrate Case

5.Parrot Case

6.Swift Case

7.Deadsea Case

8.IsraelH2 Case

9.Jordan Case

10.VDT Case

4. Draft Author : Lilach Grunfeld, Fall 1997


5. Discourse and Status : DISagreement and COMPlete

The agreement to built a VOA transmitter in southern Israel was made in 1987. However, due to a large disagreement in Israel, the project was delayed for a period of 6 years. During this time both the VOA and the government of Israel researched the possible effects of the transmitter on human and bird's migration. On Feb, 1993 the U.S. government decided to cancel the project in Israel and to install a transmitter in Kuwait.

6. Forum and Scope : Israel, USA, and International

Two countries - Israel and the U.S.A. - were involved in the VOA project. The U.S.A. would be the operator while the transmitter was to be built in Israel in order to broadcast to different countries and regions in Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

7. Decision Breadth : 2 (Israel and USA)

8. Legal Standing : LAW

A. The Israeli government signed an International treaty to prevent the endangerment and harm of migrating birds (Fromkin).

B. The Israeli High Court of Justice responded to an appeal that was made by Arava residents and the SPNI. In this response on July 1991 the court set a precedence that environmental impact studies have to be made before any final decision regarding the transmitter. This precedent decision was the reason for the long delay in the project that was finally terminated by the U.S. government on Feb, 1993.


9. Geographic Location:

a. Geographic Domain : Middle East

b. Geographic Site : West Asia

c. Geographic Impact : Israel

10. Sub-National Factors : NO

11. Type of Habitat : DRY


12. Type of Measure : Trade Favors and Import Communication

Israel gave the U.S. the land on which she planned to built the transmitter, and the U.S. handed money to Israel in return. In that sense the U.S. and Israel were trading favors. There was also a plan for communications' import going through Israel from the U.S. to Asia and to Eastern Europe.

13. Direct Vs. Indirect Impacts : Indirect

The plan to build the VOA transmitter in Israel was designed to the target of broadcasting to different regions. There was definitely no direct intention to damage or harm nature. Also, when initially planed, there was no sign that the transmitter would cause any such direct damage to nature. However, the environmentalists in Israel thought differently. They believed that the transmitter, while broadcasting, would be hazardous and would cause indirect damage to migrating birds, to earth, and to residents.

14. Relation of Measure to Environmental Impact:

a. Directly Related : Yes - Birds

b. Indirectly Related : No

c. Not Related : No

d. ProcesRelated : Yes (Species Loss Air, SPLA)

15. Trade Product Identification : COMMunication / Favors

16. Economic Data:

The U.S. Congress raised $4.2 billon for the project. By 1990, the American government had already spent about $40 million on the project, mostly through planning and preperations. This expense included $2 million on environmental impact statements and research.

17. Impact of Measure on Trade Competitiveness : No

18. Industry Sector : COMMunication.

19. Exporter and Importer : USA, ISRAEL and Many.


20. Environmental Problems Type : Habit.

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species: White storks over Israel

Name: Birds.

Type: Migrating.

Diversity: Many.

22. Impact and Effect of the Case: Low

Since the U.S. government canceled the project before the implementation of the transmitter, there was no real environmental damage. As for the area of broadcasting, the relocation of the transmitter to Kuwait have left the U.S. with the ability to continue its origin plan from there.

23. Urgency and Lifetime: 6 years.

The governments of Israel and the U.S. signed the agreement to build the transmitter in 1987, and the decision to stop the project was given by the U.S. government in 1993. It is important to assess that there were only speculations as for the possible damage for birds and residents. Therefore, it would be difficult to determine the urgency of the case.

24. Substitutes:

The substitute for the location of the transmitter became a less costly site in Kuwait.


25. Culture : No.

26. Human Rights : Yes.

1. The transmitter's target - free access to information. 2. The transmitter's impact - possible hazard to human health, and possible damage to the environment.

27. Trans Border : Yes.

28. Relevant Literature:

1. Ben-Shaul D'vora, "Electromagnetic Radiation - Is It a Hazard?", Israel Nuclear News, Vol 5, No 2, April-June 1990.

2. Collins Liat, "Heated Clash over report on VOA station", The Jerusalem Post, 8/17/92.

3. Collins Liat, "VOA bird impact survey called incomplete", The Jerusalem Post, 10/6/92.

4. "Bird Migration in the Arava and the 'Voice of America' Station", Ordered by the Executers of the NOS (National Outline Scheme for the Israel Radio Relay Station T/W/A/28), following the Supreme Court Ruling from July 29th, 1991, Mitirany Center for Desert Ecology, September 1992.

5. Fromkin Ron, "Tziporim Al Parashat Drachim " (Birds over crossroads), Mada, 24, 1, 1989/90 (in Hebrew).

6. Havemann Judith, "Environmentalists Oppose U.S. Transmitter in Israel", The Washington Post, 2/22/90.

7. Holmes A. Steven, "Clinton Turns off Cold War's Voice", New York Times, Feb 21, 93.

8. Leshem Y, Sagi Y, Prof. Mendelson H., and Prof. A Zehavi, "An Urgent Appeal Regarding the Projected VOA Transmission Station in Israel's Arava Desert", Jan 18, 93.

9. Perlman Lisa, "The Battle over a 'wasteland'", Eretz magazine, spring 1990.

10. Roman Yadin, "Hakrav Al Hashmama" (The battle over the wilderness), Eretz, (in Hebrew) Spring 1990.

11. Sagi Yoav, "The VOA Transmitter Complex in the Arava : The Campaign and its Lessons", Israel Land and Nature, Vol. 17 No.2, Winter 1991-2.

12. SPNI, "For the Cancellation of the Voice of America project in the Negev Desert",January 1990.

13. "The VOA Relay Stations - Letters to the Editor", The Jerusalem Post, 8/21/92.

14. U.S.I.A. Voice Of America - Israel Project, Bird Migration Survey, L.T.D, Spring 1987.

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