The fate of the Judean Desert's separation fences have apparently been decided. The recent terror attack in Dimona placed added pressure on green groups to withdraw their objections. Opposition to a barrier in the southern area, near the Dead Sea, has in particular diminished, and some activists are even starting to see advantages to having a fence. The defense establishment has yet to decide where and when a fence will be built in the northern desert, near Ma'aleh Adumim; there, too, it will surround at least part of the desert. The Palestinians will once again find themselves facing a new fence. Meanwhile, the security establishment is planning to pave a bypass road dubbed "the fabric of life."

A year ago, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) headed a solid green front that opposed the construction of the fence in the southern Judean Desert. In the wake of its action on the matter and appeals from Knesset members, then defense minister Amir Peretz agreed to suspend work on the fence and the bulldozers that had begun to damage the desert landscape were stopped.

The objective of the work was to link the existing separation fence, which reaches the southeastern Hebron hills to a new segment that would reach into the heart of the Judean Desert, west of the Dead Sea. The route is almost congruent to the Green Line (pre-Six Day War border) and does not envelop areas owned by Palestinian farmers. SPNI originally argued that electronic surveillance and military patrols could provide an alternative answer to the danger of Palestinian infiltrators.

This opinion changed perhaps following a joint tour by the SPNI and Israel Nature and National Parks Authority (INPA) in the southern desert two weeks ago. "We were shown a number of problems that exist in the desert because there is no fence, and we will have to formulate our position as soon as possible and present it to the INNPA," says Nir Papai, head of SPNI's environmental preservation division.

In the absence of a fence, the army is hard put to maintain security; their defensive measures cause systematic damage to the landscape and nature. The army blazes trails and deploys vehicles and equipment everywhere it sees fit, damaging the desert's sensitive and fragile ecosystem.

Another problem, according to the INPA, is the infiltration of Palestinians deep into the desert. The Bedouin who live in the desert are also systematically destroying desert plant life to use for kindling and hunting wild animals for sale.

The fence, which will be several meters wide and run alongside a security road, is supposed to create a barrier between these activities and nature reserves in the desert.

"We still believe the fence will damage the desert and we oppose it, but the INPA did a very professional job and presented the alternatives to having a fence," says Papai. In other words, the SPNI people are aware their initial assessment of the environmental implications of the fence did not take into account the complexity of the problems of preserving nature in the area.

The SPNI continues to oppose a fence in the northern part of the desert. Those who support it are Jewish settlers from the area, some of whom hold positions in the SPNI and INPA. The objective of the fence in the northern desert is political - establishing the enclave of Ma'aleh Adumim with a defined, fenced-in border. This enclave also includes other Jewish settlements in the area - Almon, Nofei Prat and Alon.

Up until several weeks ago, the defense establishment did not rank building a fence in the northern Judean Desert as a top priority. In a tour two months ago of Kfar Adumim, northeast of Ma'aleh Adumim, GOC Central Command Gadi Shamni told INPA officials that the IDF had no intention of building a fence in the area in the next three years.

According to Doron Nissim, who coordinates matters related to the separation fence on behalf of the INPA, the IDF's fence budget has been cut considerably, from $1.5 billion to $250 million. Moreover, in recent years there have not been security incidents in the area that have created pressure to build the fence. However, it is clear to the environmental organizations as well as to the inhabitants of the Palestinian villages who will find themselves even more cut off from their environment, that Israel is not planning to relinquish its intention to fence in the area in the future.

The Adumim bloc bubble

A few weeks ago journalists were invited to a hilltop in Kfar Adumim that looks out over the Wadi Kelt Reserve - which the fence would damage. One resident, Ze'ev Hacohen, explained why he and his colleagues were opposed to the plan. He was joined by neighbor MK Uri Ariel of the National Union-National Religious Party. Ariel argued that all the inhabitants of the area, Palestinians and Jews, would be better off without the fence.

"We came here for ideological reasons, not to find half a dunam and put up a house," said Hacohen. "We love the land and want to preserve it and in our eyes a nature preserve has intrinsic importance. We are a public that doesn't chop down trees and doesn't hunt and therefore the lands surrounding Jewish settlements have become ecological islands."

This ecological paradise that the settlers of Kfar Adumim have created for themselves is guarded by "nature wardens" from nearby Jewish settlements. Areas youths hike in the region and thus maintain a Jewish presence in a place where hikers were murdered in the past. Palestinians who approach the area are of course considered a potential threat and usually prefer to keep a distance.

According to Nissim of the INPA, the defense establishment has presented an alternative, in which a fence would be built on the southern bank of the Wadi Kelt Preserve. Another security road with electronic surveillance would be paved on the northern bank. "From our perspective, it would be bad if there were damage both on the northern side and on the southern side and therefore we presented an alternative in which there would be a fence only on the northern side," says Nissim. "This would still cause damage but if there is no other choice, then this is the alternative we would prefer."

Although construction of the fence has been postponed, the heads of planning at the defense establishment and the Civil Administration are still striving to create an "Adumim bloc" bubble cut off from Palestinian surroundings. In recent months, officials have worked on a"fabric of life" road that would run alongside the fence. This road will bypass Ma'aleh Adumim from the east and will enable Palestinians from the southern West Bank to get to the North. It will enable Jews to travel between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem in an area free of Palestinian vehicles.

Those likely to be directly affected in a negative way by the paving of the road are Palestinians. The residents intend to file an objection to expropriation orders through Jerusalem attorney Shlomo Lecker.

According to the Palestinians, the road will seriously damage agriculture, olive groves and reservoirs. Their argument is that the roads and paths the army has blocked should be reopened and lands should not be expropriated for further expansion of Jewish settlements.

The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman's Office responded: "A 'fabric of life' road will connect the Bethlehem area in a direct and convenient way to the area of Jericho and the Jordan Valley, thus significantly improving the quality of life for Palestinians in the area. The route has been planned in such a way that damage to state lands will be reduced to a minimum and use will be made of 225 dunams of private lands and 1,408 dunams of state lands."

The Civil Administration responded that the route of the road would follow the route of the fence.