Greens finally get off the fence
Following near-total disregard of the environmental implications of the separation fence, green bodies are voicing their opposition to a project that is redesigning the landscape along the central hill chain and bisecting ecological systems as it goes up.
In fact, during the past few months, pro-environment activists have been trying to alter the fence's course at several sites, and other fronts in the struggle will undoubtedly open up as work progresses.
In most instances, the greens do not wish to abolish the fence. Rather, they are interested in altering its route in order to minimize damage to the landscape and ecology. Nevertheless, there are a few regions in which environmental-protection groups are arguing there is no security necessity for the fence's construction.
This month, the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED, also known as Adam, Teva V'Din) have begun to take action to alter the route of the fence in the area of Beit Iksa, a village west of Jerusalem's Ramot neighborhood. As at other sites along the fence, the struggle in this area to curtail environmental harm dovetails with the struggle to preserve and maintain access to areas of agricultural cultivation by Palestinian residents. In the case of Beit Iksa, the green organizations are interested in preventing damage to Nahal Luz and preserving the traditional farming methods employed there.
The heightened involvement of environmental groups in the fence's construction also has been characterized by the participation of settlement residents in various campaigns calling for alteration of its route. Staff members at the Kfar Etzion Field School recently joined in the struggle against the route of the fence to be built around Gush Etzion. They wish to alter the route so that it will not damage the Abu Suda forest reserve. In addition, several settlers are taking a stand against construction of the fence through the Judean Desert.
"The environmental movement forfeited the struggle against the fence from the start, having concluded that the public wanted it, and therefore, there was no reason to take action on the matter," explains Yaron Rosenthal, director of the Kfar Etzion Field School. "They did not try to reduce the damage, even though the effect of many other plans against which greens have fought is actually dwarfed by the effect of the fence."
A fence and railway too
One reason for the greens' change in approach is the proliferation of appeals they have received from citizens who have begun to take action on the fence. Another major reason is the fact that construction work is getting closer to the Judean Hills, where the fence's environmental effect is expected to be especially great. "We are fighting now to save the Abu Suda forest, and the next struggles will be to prevent environmental damage in the area of Batir, the village south of Jerusalem, and the Judean Desert," Rosenthal says. "Even if we succeed in having left open sections of a few hundred meters or a kilometer long in a few places, where electronic surveillance will be used, it would be significant." Such sections could enable the maintenance of ecological corridors in which the passage of animals and scattering of plant seeds would be possible.
The Kfar Etzion Field School filed an appeal with the High Court of Justice two months ago against construction work that was to take place near the Abu Suda forest reserve, which is located near the Gush Etzion intersection. The petition claimed the proposed route would harm the reserve. The court issued an order that construction be halted while the state prepares a response on the matter.
The campaign to save the forest reserve raises the question of the proper balance between nature protection and consideration of Palestinian villagers' needs, given that the defense establishment contended the route was planned so as to prevent damage to the vineyards cultivated by residents of the Palestinian village Beit Umar. A debate was held in the plenum of the Israel National Nature and Parks Authority (INNPA) two months ago on the authority's position on the route of the fence in Abu Suda. One participant was Alona Shefer, a representative of Life and Environment, the green umbrella organization. She addressed the concern that building the fence at a distance from the forest would harm the vineyards. "Our effort to protect the reserve will make things harder for farmers in the area," Shefer said. "Preserving these 200 trees would destroy the livelihood of the farmers there. With all of the importance of environment, I don't think it is right to do."
Rosenthal claims the solution devised by Kfar Etzion Field School staffers would make it possible to save the forest, and substantially reduce harm to the land cultivated by the Palestinians. "We carried out a detailed examination of the territory, and proposed an alternate route that is a kilometer and a half shorter than the route proposed by the defense establishment. This route reduces the area of Palestinian vineyards that would be directly harmed by the fence, from 91 dunams to 40 dunams (23 and 10 acres, respectively). Instead of 40 dunams of forest damaged, the entire forest would remain intact."
In the case of Beit Iksa, it is still unclear to the greens what route will be chosen by the defense establishment. IUED officials toured the area with Avraham Shaked, a member of SPNI, and Shai Dror, a resident of Mevasseret Zion who has long been active in preventing damage caused by the fence to the environment and Palestinian farmland. Earthworks had already commenced on the site next to Nahal Luz, but they were suspended once it was decided to carry out additional changes to the route.
Following the tour, members of the environmental group contacted Danny Terza, head of the fence authority at the Defense Ministry. They wrote that due to the importance of protecting the heritage and landscape of Nahal Luz, the fence route should be planned so as not to harm the cliffs or the valley's floor. Members of the environmental group added that the railway line to Jerusalem is also supposed to pass through the area, and they warned that without coordination between builders of the railway line and the fence, double damage would be caused to the area.
One nature protection source who has kept his eye on the construction of the separation fence says the defense establishment continually falls into a situation in which it plans a route, and even begins construction, but then is compelled to withdraw to another route, usually due to lawsuits filed by Palestinian residents. One thing that is clear is that a general decision to build the fence adjacent to the Green Line in order to exclusively meet security objectives would have prevented the incessant fluctuation in the fence's route. This would have reduced the scope of the construction work, and with it damage to the environment and the landscape.
Serious harm in the desert
Especially serious harm to the environment and ecological system as a result of the separation fence's construction will take place in the Judean Desert. Unlike other regions, in this area there has never been a border fence, and there are barely any roads or other infrastructure lines running through it.
The area's topography of cliffs along the edge of the desert will make it difficult to build the fence, and will require earthworks on a large scale, the blazing of access paths, and the passage of the fence within or alongside the channels of the region's largest streams.
INNPA sources have tried to promote an alternative to the separation fence that would pass along an existing road, along ridges on which the Jordanians once had a series of police stations. Such an option would reduce harm to the desert landscape, but penetrates well beyond the Green Line, and therefore, is problematic in judicial and diplomatic terms. The fence's route already has been planned up to the area of Mount Holed, located deep in the desert. The defense establishment is still examining several alternatives in the more eastern section, which extends down to the Dead Sea and in which there are ridges of the old police stations as well.
Even if a route is eventually chosen that does not directly harm the channels of the large streams crossing the desert, it is still a constructed system that will bring about the truncation of the ecological system in the Judean Desert. It also will adversely affect the sense of open expanse that is part of a visit within it.
Some INNPA officials are trying to find the positive aspect of nature protection in the fence's construction. The new obstacle would prevent penetration by Bedouins into the heart of the desert, and save local vegetation that they pick for heating purposes. This argument also arose regarding sections of the fence in the Gilboa and Jordan Rift regions. INNPA personnel noted that the fence had prevented the passage of hunters from the Palestinian side, thereby saving wild boars in the area.
According to the reports of the authority's rangers, the Bedouins have nearly wiped out vegetation in the northern Judean Desert. This vegetation consists mainly of bushes of the broom (rotem) and zygophyllum (zugan) varieties, which are piled high next to Bedouin settlements in the desert after being picked. These bushes hold great importance in the subsistence of ecological systems in an arid zone.
One of the rangers once proposed supplying the Bedouins with an alternate heating material, thereby saving the desert vegetation. But this proposal was never implemented, and the bushes continue to vanish from the desert.