The beeper beeped relentlessly. Warden Gal Vine was again receiving messages from the military communications system about infiltrators and smugglers coming across the border from Egypt. The Har Hanegev Nature Reserve, where Vine is a warden for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, has become a focus of Israel Defense Forces activity, and he is trying to minimize the damage. With a sinking heart he watches military vehicles crushing the landscape in pursuit of infiltrators. His job is to ascertain that after the chase the soldiers leave nature to its own devices.
The nature reserve has been transformed into a land of chase, and the NPA has taken a rare stance among preservers of the environment: It favors the building of a fence all along the border - a barrier that will also prevent wild animals from moving freely from one country to another. The authority believes that only in this way will it be possible to ensure quiet and stability for the natural life in the largest reserve in Israel.
The government has decided to build a protective fence along a third of the porous border, in the Pithat Shalom area of the northern Negev and near Eilat. This would protect inhabited areas and saving the high costs of building a fence all along the mountainous border. The remaining two-thirds of the border will stay open, including the Har Hanegev reserve and other reserves.
"The significance is that the smuggling and the infiltrating will funnel into the area of the nature reserves and increase the military activity," says Gilad Gabai, the deputy director of the NPA's southern district. "A fence is needed all along the border to prevent penetrations and to reduce the routine security activity, which has been causing increasing damage to the reserves." The Har Hanegev reserve covers more than 1,000 square kilometers and is nearly the last bastion of nature undisturbed by human activity. Vine notes there are "large animals here, like wild asses, oryx, ibex and deer that can roam free."
If you drive along the border road, which passes through the reserve, from time to time you can see flocks of ibex calmly making their way along the steep cliffs. Wolves, caracals and hyenas also live in the area.
For decades the IDF has used part of the area of the reserve for maneuvers, but this activity has been restricted and reduced in agreements between the army and the NPA. Thus, it has been stipulated how and when it is permitted to train in the reserve, and the authority's wardens were given the right to intervene when a suspicion of exceptional damage to nature arises. However, the situation has been changed by the activity to prevent infiltration and smuggling across the border, which have increased in recent years.
"We signed a compact to regularize the activity with the brigade operating in the area but it is difficult to impose restrictions on a chase after suspects who might be smuggling weapons," says Gabai.
Vine says emphatically: "We have no complaints against the army. They are doing what they have to do under the circumstances. I've done reserve duty here and I can tell you that when you know there has been a penetration across the border, you have no alternative but to set out in pursuit."
There's an observation point for trippers overlooking a stunning view toward Nahal Laban, and there a military position has been set up. Several hills now bear electronic surveillance installations and a dense network of roads has been broken though to permit easier movement for the forces.
Visitors to the reserve might get the impression they are in a large military camp: They have to pass through roadblocks and are often required to turn back when the army closes off parts of the reserve during a chase after infiltrators.
A trail for hikers, which has repeatedly been broken though by the army, now looks like a highway for chases. The scars left by all-terrain vehicles in the open area cause not only aesthetic damage to the landscape but also severe damage to the delicate fabric of the desert wild life, which is so sensitive to changes. Lighting equipment causes fires, and waste from the outposts and the bases flows untreated into the streambeds. Of course, the noise and the illumination are constant disturbances for the animals accustomed to the quiet and the isolation of the desert.
Gabai points out the army's massive effect in the border area: "The army sends a few soldiers to set up an ambush, and then they're hot so it's necessary to install a structure to make shade. Then a road is broken through and they add some more structures. The cumulative damage to the reserve increases."
The nature reserve people sometimes take comfort in small achievements, like the breaking through to a hill outpost that was coordinated with them. The road has been dubbed the Lugassi Ascent, after a non-commissioned officer in the Engineering Corps who cooperated in the preservation of the landscape when planning the route.
Most of the smuggling and the bringing in of infiltrators is carried out by Bedouin tribesmen from Sinai. The smugglers, who are equipped with all-terrain vehicles and sophisticated communications devices, have their work made easy for them by the hills and the plains stretching to the horizon. When the army's electronic surveillance devices pick them up, they flee and then a chase starts in which the army is not bound by the routine rules of behavior in a nature reserve. According to Gabai, erecting a fence along only part of the border will not solve the infiltration problem and therefore it should be built all along the line. He says: "The fence will establish a clear boundary and will reduce the army's activity. The penetrations will be blocked, visitors will be able to move around freely and the reserve will be saved."
In any case, he notes, the Egyptians have already put up an improvised barbed wire fence on their side and have done excavation work that has damaged the landscape. Indeed, in many places the Egyptian side of the border looks like a series of pits ad quarries.
Such a fence would also be an obstacle to the animals. Vine notes that, in any case, they are hunted when they cross the border. Apparently in the reality of the Middle East the safest place for the ibex and the other wild animals in Har Hanegev is behind a fence.
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