Preserving a Piece of Paradise

Israel must be aware that its security fence is being built on sensitive agricultural sites and do what it can to reduce irreversible damage to the environment.

The argument over the establishment of the separation fence has become largely irrelevant, since large sections of it have already been built. Nonetheless, the sections planned for future construction are liable to seriously harm the environment and the Palestinians who depend on it for their existence. Therefore, there is a need to argue and question the necessity of erecting the fence in certain areas and the path chosen for it, and perhaps reduce the irreversible damage to the environment.

In several areas in the Judean Hills, the fence threatens lands of traditional agriculture based on ancient irrigation methods and unique preservation of the landscape. One of these areas is the small Palestinian village of Wadi Fukhin, tucked inside a narrow valley with an abundance of springs, west of Bethlehem.

When you enter Wadi Fukhin, you discover a traditional system of agriculture that includes a network of water canals and nearly 100 pools. These feed a colorful mosaic of agricultural plots, with shepherds and their flocks wandering between them.

However, behind this pastoral tranquillity is the serious concern of local residents about the impact of various construction plans that threaten to enclose the village from all sides. On one side, the new neighborhoods of the Beitar Illit settlement are continuing to sprawl. On the other side, right next to the homes in the village, construction of the separation fence is planned, limiting the village residents' freedom of movement.

The expansion work at Beitar Illit is being conducted in a crude way, with no sensitivity to the landscape and environment, as is typical of settlement construction. Mounds of construction waste and dirt are piled next to the agricultural fields of Wadi Fukhin. The Civil Administration claims it has taken action to halt the dumping of waste, but this has yet to be effective.

Even today it is not easy for Wadi Fukhin residents to travel outside of their village, but within the village itself there is still a feeling of rural expanse, with the landscape a central part of it. The fence and the new neighborhoods of the settlement are perceived, quite justifiably, as being about to impose a general siege on the village, which will destroy the open landscape.

The village's system of traditional agriculture also faces a real existential threat. A report by experts living in the community of Zur Hadassah, within the Green Line, warns that the cumulative impact of the construction plans, including the separation fence and the planned expansion of Zur Hadassah, will cover the land where rainwater trickles into the earth and feeds the springs of Wadi Fukhin. The springs are liable to dry up, and along with them an ancient symbiosis of nature and human activity that has characterized the peoples and cultures living in this land.

Israel recently took pride in the fact that several historic sites located within its borders (biblical tels, or settlement mounds, and an ancient trade route in the Negev) were included in UNESCO's list of world heritage sites. But, at the same time, Israel destroys important heritage sites like the lands of traditional agriculture in the Judean Hills.

The case of Wadi Fukhin requires rethinking the path of the separation fence and the expansion of Beitar Illit. The expansion of settlements should be halted not only because it endangers the existence of the neighboring village, but also because it sinks Israel deeper into the mire of occupation that makes it harder to formulate political accords. The fence route in Wadi Fukhin should be canceled or scaled back, even if one examines it only from the security perspective. According to the plan, the fence will suddenly stop above the village, and it is not clear where it will continue. Similarly, there is a plan to build a fence that will encircle Gush Etzion and also encompass the village, so that in effect there will be two separation fences in the area.

The ray of light in the story of Wadi Fukhin is the cooperation the Palestinians have received from the environmental group Friends of the Earth Middle East and from a group of Zur Hadassah residents. Unlike the residents of community-suburban towns who often prefer to isolate themselves, the group of Zur Hadassah residents set out to protect their Palestinian neighbors. One hopes they succeed in preserving the small paradise in Wadi Fukhin.