Everyone who loves the Judean Desert - and it is hard to believe anyone has not fallen in love with it - is invited to take a farewell tour. The current desert landscapes will disappear once the separation fence is erected there.
The fence work that began in recent weeks will slice through open desert. The fence, and the adjacent security road, will penetrate the depths of the desert, approaching or reaching the Dead Sea. The security establishment did not accept proposed alternatives, including a combination of patrols and electronic surveillance.
The separation fence has already caused serious damage to the landscapes of the Gilboa and the southwestern Judean Hills, but all this is dwarfed by the damage it will cause to the desert. Despite its proximity to densely populated areas (Jerusalem and Hebron), the Judean Desert contains well-preserved ecological systems, including rare plants and super-predators like panthers and wolves.
A group of scientists appealed to GOC Central Command Yair Naveh, trying to persuade him to forgo the fence. The group noted that this is a unique region not only within Israel, but throughout the Middle East, and offers a fascinating encounter between Mediterranean flora and fauna and the desert world. The region's fauna includes many species that are otherwise extinct in Israel, or even throughout the world. The fence and its accompanying infrastructures - walls, dirt barriers and roads - would split the desert, and cut the cliffs off from the plateau. The surface and subterranean flow of rainwater would be seriously interrupted. The fence would divide animal populations, first and foremost the ibex. The Judean desert is their main terrain, and they move between the cliffs and the desert plateau. Some would remain on one side of the fence, and the rest would be on the other side.
As the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel notes, for thousands of years various regimes, including the Hasmoneans, the Romans, the Jordanians and the British, maintained security in the desert by means of fortresses and lookout points. Israel, which is equipped with advanced technology, is using means that would cause irreparable destruction.
One may accept the argument that the separation fence fulfills an essential security need. In the case of southern Judea, which borders the desert, the construction is not problematic, diplomatically speaking. The fence route there follows the Green Line almost exactly. However, we must ask to what extent the fence is absolutely necessary, and whether it justifies the high price the desert will pay.
The director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry, Shai Avital, a reserves major general and a former member of the elite Sayeret Markal unit, wrote to the GOC Southern Command two weeks ago. He suggested that in areas where Palestinian and Jewish locales are dozens of kilometers apart, smart observation, minimal dirt patrol roads and mobile forces would provide just as good a means of warning and interception as the fence.
Even if it is decided to erect the fence, we must examine whether it is absolutely necessary to build it along a broad route that will have a dramatic effect on the environment. Perhaps we could make do with a more limited format so that in the future, if different diplomatic conditions prevail, the fence could be dismantled without leaving the landscape scarred and wounded. As ecologists Ron Frumkin and Tamar Ahiron-Frumkin have noted, the fence would pass through an arid landscape that recovers slowly. Therefore, damage would remain for many generations, even after the need for the fence disappears.
As long as the construction has not begun, and only preparatory works are underway, we can try to save the desert. The voices of protest and the questions regarding the fence's necessity have been too quiet, if not almost silent. For the Judean Desert, they appear to be too late.
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