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Shortly past five in the morning, as the first light shone over Mount Moab, a few gun shots were heard coming from the east. Moshe Mintz, an inspector for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority in the northern Judean Desert, jumped into his green four-wheel vehicle and headed from the Ha'etakim Cliff toward the dry river bed of Nahal Hazazon.

With the inspector was a Golani patrol soldier who served as his bodyguard. A lookout remained on the cliff - Amir Aloni, deputy director of the authority in the West Bank. As the sun rose, Aloni spotted a Palestinian with a donkey on one of the paths and pointed him out to Mintz.

In this remote area, far from any village, town or even a Bedouin tent, at such an early hour, such a figure could have only one intent.

The night before, on the last night of the year, a joint team of Golani solders and civil administration inspectors (who in practice wear two hats across the Green Line, where they also serve as nature authority inspectors ) set out on their mission. When it was over, a few special delicacies were missing from the dining tables at Eid el Fitr festivities in Bethlehem and Hebron, but a few ibex remained alive to roam the Judean Desert.

According to Avim Attar, director of the Judean Desert section of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, while the ibex population in the area of Ein Gedi, which is inside the Green Line, has been increasing in recent years, there has been concern about the concentration of ibex in the northern Judean Desert, which lies outside the Green Line.

"Until the start of the second intifada in 2000, the army often trained in the Nabi Musa area, and the army's presence created a sort of partition between the cliffs over the Dead Sea and the area around Bethlehem and Hebron," he said. "When the army stopped training there, it created a vacuum, and the only ones who remained were our inspectors." According to Attar, the authority takes a sample count every year in September to estimate the size of the ibex population. Last September, it counted 125, a decrease of 160 from the previous year, and "we estimate that dozens of ibex are hunted and killed each year."

The northern Judean Desert is one of the largest unpopulated regions in the West Bank. East of Gush Etzion and south of Kibbutz Kalia, it does not host even one human settlement, Jewish or Palestinian. It features only one road crossing it from east to west, marked on maps as Route 3698, but, in fact, it is only passable by heavy four-by-four vehicles. Except for a few 4X4 addicts and the occasional army patrol, there is almost no Israeli presence in the area; at the same time, graffiti in Arabic and even improvised outdoor ovens can be spotted in the crevices along the local streams, Hazazon, Darga and Kedem.

According to the nature authority inspectors, Palestinian hunters divide into two groups: visitors to the area who attempt to catch an ibex with improvised means if they happen to run across one and the professionals, who come equipped with sophisticated hunting rifles manufactured in Bethlehem and Jenin.

"Sometimes they [the ibex] are meant for private consumption," Aloni says. "But in many cases, they are sold to local slaughterhouses. Ibex can sell for as much as NIS 800-900."

The hunters know the area well and tend to ambush the ibex at dawn near watering holes at the foot of the Ha'etakim Cliff. And so the three nature authority teams involved in the campaign to stop them are posted on the cliff, each at a different point, overlooking a different spring. They take their places under cover of darkness, at four in the morning, and the drive up the steep path is made with parking lights only, to avoid being seen.

The team of Mintz and Aloni was positioned over Ein Farhan; after they heard the gun shots, and Mintz had leaped toward the Palestinian pointed out by Aloni, he nonetheless failed to find him. The other two teams were also unsuccessful. The inspectors figured they were spotted in advance, but did not voice any disappointment.

"The goal is first of all to prevent and reduce hunting" Aloni said. "Even if we catch a hunter, it's hard to get an indictment because the military courts are more used to dealing with terror activities. In the end, the main thing is the presence of inspectors to create a protected space in which the ibex can survive."