Israel to Resume Building Separation Barrier South of Jerusalem

Move has outraged activists who say construction will destroy ancient agricultural landscape.

The Defense establishment has announced plans to resume construction of Israel's separation barrier south of Jerusalem - a move that has drawn criticism from environmental groups who claim the barrier will cause grave harm to ancient agricultural landscapes in the area.

The plan to build the barrier in the area between Har Gilo and the Palestinian village of al-Walajah is also likely to be another point of tension over Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

The planned portion of the barrier will extend over four kilometers, and will bring Har Gilo and the Cremisan monastery into Israel, but leave al-Walajah outside of the barrier.

Plans to build the barrier south of Jerusalem began four years ago; however, construction was halted due to budget constraints.

The Defense establishment had agreed to make some changes to the route - which does not cross the Green Line - in order to lessen the damage to agricultural areas, but the barrier and an adjacent security path will still cover a large swath of land.

The area is considered to contain unique agricultural sites that date back to the era of the First temple, which preservationists have worked to maintain. The area includes springs, pools and irrigation tunnels that are used to work the land even today. Activists are working to have the villages and surrounding fields in the area named a World Heritage Site.

Activists say the barrier will also severely damage a park the Jerusalem Municipality is planning to build in Nahal Refaim, near the village of al-Walajah. The park was planned on the basis that there would be an open area for trips and activities that would be difficult if the area were part of a closed security zone.

"This area is the only one in the Judean Hills where the ancient agricultural culture remains," said Avraham Shaked, coordinator of a nature reserve in the Jerusalem hills. "This culture has existed since the time of our forefathers and in terms of conservation, this area has world-class importance."

Shaked added that the barrier would utterly destroy the landscape, and said he understands the government's security concerns, but said it is imperative to find a way to avoid damaging the area.

The Defense Ministry responded by saying that hydrological testing has shown the locals springs would not be damaged by the barrier's construction and to the ancient agricultural steps at the site near Wadi Puchin. It also said all possible engineering efforts would be made to preserve the landscape.