The report was shocking, even to Israelis inured to bad news: Three athletes who perished after a bridge collapsed July 14 during the opening of an international sports festival did not die of injuries suffered in their 48-foot plunge into a river. Nor did they die solely due to the rush of water into their lungs.
The two women and one man, all Australians, were killed by toxins they swallowed in the evil-smelling waters of the Yarkon River, according to preliminary autopsy reports. The still-unidentified chemicals, a coroner said, caused "immediate and severe" lung inflammation that killed Yetty Bennett, 50, and Gregory Small, 37, both of Sydney, within hours and Elizabeth Sawicki, 47, of Melbourne nearly two weeks later.
Environmentalists say Israelis should not have been surprised. "Almost every major river inside Israel is polluted," said Dror Avisar, chief hydrologist for the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, a public interest group specializing in environmental law. "It's terrifying."
What's more, the Yarkon, contaminated in its midsection with what environmentalists call a noxious cocktail of industrial waste, pesticides and partly treated sewage, is by no means the worst of Israel's rivers.
Israel has just begun to awaken to the dangers posed by years of neglect of its environment, say experts inside and outside government. Rapid urbanization and poorly regulated industries have dirtied Israel's air, fouled its land and contaminated much of its precious water supply.
In recent years, Israel has begun to take steps on environmental issues, establishing an Environment Ministry in 1989 and allocating money to build modern sewage treatment plants, including a $100-million facility under construction near Jerusalem to replace a small, ineffective plant.
But the ministry is small and underfunded, and the problems are many.
Israel's record is especially poor in cleaning its rivers, which send raw or poorly treated sewage, hazardous chemicals and other pollutants coursing throughout the country and into the Mediterranean, several experts said. In river cleanup, Israel is considered 25 to 30 years behind the United States, where the oil-laden Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire in 1969 but is now clean enough for recreational use.
The recent deaths have alarmed and embarrassed many Israelis, who say they were unaware of the severity of the problems. "It makes you feel like you're living in a banana republic," one young woman muttered in disgust at the Yarkon pollution.
But Israelis generally become concerned about the environment only when there is such a tragedy, environmentalists complain. They blame the issue's lack of resonance here on Israelis' understandable preoccupation with security and the fact that this is a nation of immigrants, many from countries where environmental awareness is low.
"Israel is a small country that has always given all its thoughts and money to security problems," Avisar said. "But we have to make peace and improve our environment. We have to be a normal country."
Israeli officials said this week that they are still awaiting results of tests on water and sediment samples from the Yarkon and of toxicology exams to pinpoint chemicals that were in the victims' lungs. Early results have ruled out contamination from heavy metals or from a petroleum distillate sprayed on the water to kill mosquitoes the day before the accident, Environment Ministry officials said.
But Dr. Yehuda Hiss, director of the national coroner's office, said he has "no doubt at all" that chemicals in the water or in sludge deposits on the riverbed were involved in the deaths.
Preliminary autopsy findings showed that all three victims suffered severe damage to the lungs, the likes of which he had never seen before, Hiss said. "Their lungs had extensive injuries, not only from the water but from chemicals in the water, which were then distributed to the bloodstream," he said.
The accident occurred when a temporary wooden span leading to the stadium in this Tel Aviv suburb snapped as members of the Australian delegation marched across it for opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah games, an Olympic-style event for Jewish athletes. About 60 people were tossed in the Yarkon. Other Australian team members and Israeli police then leaped into the water to try to save the injured.
Two Australian athletes remain hospitalized in Israel, including one in critical condition; 10 other athletes who fell or jumped in the water in the rescue effort have returned to Australia but have since been hospitalized, suffering from respiratory problems, according to the Reuters news agency.
Officials in Israel and Australia, along with the injured and their relatives, are anxiously awaiting the lab test results from facilities in Israel and the United States.
Ehud Stein, a lawyer hired by the Australian team to investigate possible litigation, said any claim thus far is likely to deal with the question of liability stemming from the bridge's faulty construction. But he did not rule out expanding it in the future to include anyone believed responsible for the river's pollution.
Meanwhile, a makeshift memorial has gone up near the accident scene. Votive candles stand atop a concrete wall that bears warnings in red and blue graffiti: "This contamination kills."
Official signs posted on the Yarkon's banks warn that fishing, swimming and even boating are prohibited in the river's dark green waters. But in the 1940s, according to records maintained by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, the Yarkon was widely used for recreation.
The river's problems began in the 1950s, when much of its source was diverted for drinking water and irrigation, said Noam Gressel, the environmental group's scientific director. Since then, the river consists mainly of poorly treated effluent from sewage plants.
In 1988, the Israeli government created the Yarkon River Authority, an independent body charged with overseeing the river's restoration. David Pargement, the authority's director, said it has worked with municipal officials to encourage construction of sewage plants and has taken action against nearby factories that pollute the river.
As a whole, Pargement said, the river is "generations better" than it was 10 or even five years ago, but he added that much remains to be done. In particular, the middle section, which runs through the cities of Petah Tikva, Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan, remains heavily polluted. As the investigation into the recent deaths continues, he said, "we're waiting to see if there are measures that need to be taken immediately. But we're involved in this constantly, not just when this very extreme situation has turned the focus onto the Yarkon."
Indeed, environmentalists and government experts agree that the Yarkon is far from unique among Israel's rivers and larger streams. And it is considered less polluted than at least one.
The Kishon River in northern Israel flows through Haifa, the country's most polluted and most heavily industrialized city, and ends in Haifa Bay. The river contains a deadly mix of pesticides, sewage and industrial waste from chemical plants and oil refineries on the bay. But the river may be on its way to recovery: In a landmark court case, several chemical companies agreed to clean up discharges from their factories.
Gressel said he believes that Israel's environmental problems stem in part from a public attitude he described as ehiyeh beseder, or "everything will be OK." He said that Israelis have a tendency to focus on the present and, often, only on the most pressing issue.
"There is a historic lack of concern and awareness for the environment here," Gressel said. "The government and the public have always felt that issues of national security were more important, but I'm just not sure that's a realistic approach. We've reached a level of real crisis."