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Fencing Israel

Terrorism, wilderness, and the Israeli security wall

by Haim Watzman
Photographs: Daniel Blatt

Published in the March/April 2008 issue of Orion magazine



Map: Mike Reagan

TRAFFIC IS SNARLED throughout Jerusalem. Today is Israel’s Memorial Day, a time of mourning that, at nightfall, will segue into the celebrations of Independence Day. What is a cause for celebration for Israelis, however, is a black day for Palestinians. They call Israel’s birth the Nakba, or Catastrophe, an event marking the loss of their land to the Jews and the transformation of many Palestinians into indigent refugees. Nearly sixty years later, the two people are still at war, with the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea caught in the middle. The land at stake is not large, but it is varied—from the rolling green hills of the Galilee in the north to the majestic, barren wadis of the Negev in the south. Jerusalem lies in the center, and to its southeast is a unique patch of wilderness, the Judean Desert.

A healthy chunk of the desert’s 775 square miles is visible from Mount Hetzron, which is topped by the ruins of a Judean fortress built three thousand years ago. To the east runs a line of low hills that mark the lip of the abyss, where the topography plunges four thousand feet down to the Dead Sea—the lowest point in the long rift valley that stretches from the Red Sea up to the Taurus Mountains in Anatolia. To the south, a series of drab limestone ranges cut through by the canyons of intermittent rivers lead to where the Judean Desert merges into the Negev. A similarly arid, if somewhat flatter plateau stretches to the north, up to Jerusalem.

I have come to Mount Hetzron with Raanan Boral, my guide from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). It is the last stop of the day. Earlier this morning, we drove from Jerusalem through fertile lands on the mountain ridge that forces the clouds from the Mediterranean Sea and Europe to give up what rain they have. Unlike the Negev, which is part of the desert belt that stretches from the Sahara to Arabia, the Judean Desert is caused by the rain shadow of highlands pushed up by the tectonic cracking and tilting that formed the Dead Sea rift valley.

Boral tells me that the Israeli army plans to build a base here. The soldiers stationed at the base will patrol a multilayered metal fence furnished with electronic sensors—and flanked on either side by thirteen-foot access roads—that is slated to snake its way through this wilderness in order to separate Arabs from Jews. On the face of it, it seems rather pointless, as there is not an Arab to be seen and the only Jews I know of in the entire expanse are Boral and I. But as Boral explains, the desert, empty as it may seem, is full of political tension.

The SPNI is no newcomer to this sort of conflict. While it devotes most of its resources to encouraging Israelis to hike and enjoy the countryside and creating a constituency for preserving open spaces, it also plays a unique role in political advocacy for environmental causes. As Israel’s oldest and largest environmental group, it is represented on all government zoning and planning commissions, where it has fought many battles to preserve the country’s wilderness areas—among them the Judean Desert.

“This desert is a tough place to live. The ecosystem is very sensitive because the animal and plant populations are very small,” Boral says. “But there’s human history as well, stretching back ten thousand years. Caravans have traversed it, and kings have built fortresses like the one on this mountain. Each one fortified a different line. The Hasmoneans built in the desert. Herod the Great built a line of fortresses along the Dead Sea. The British built a chain of police stations along the line just before the cliffs. But this is the first time that a ruler has had the technology and a political motivation to divide the desert in two.” Even when a border ran through the desert between 1948 and 1967, there was no physical barrier. At that time, the West Bank—a chunk of territory shaped like a backward B with Jerusalem at its central cusp—was ruled by Jordan. The border with Israel was just a line patrolled by soldiers.

Boral has taken a day to show me why he thinks the fence will cause irreparable damage to the Judean Desert. While small, the desert has its own unique ecology. It is a place where European and African species, and highland and lowland flora and fauna, meet and coexist.

THE FENCE THAT IS PLANNED to run through this desert is the southeastern tail of a huge and controversial barrier that Israel has been constructing since 2002 to keep Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank from reaching their targets in Israel. This barrier, largely an electronic fence but in some places a stark wall, will be some 450 miles long when complete. The section Israel wants to build where we now stand will slice through the tenuous habitat of the Judean Desert’s ibexes, deer, leopards, jackals, and coyotes, not to mention that of the two small Bedouin tribes whose haphazard homes and sparse fields dot the landscape of the desert’s marshes.

Construction of the barrier is part of a policy initiated by former prime minister Ariel Sharon to disengage from the greater part of the West Bank, which Israel conquered during the war of 1967. In official Israeli parlance, the West Bank is called Judea and Samaria. It roughly corresponds to the heartland of biblical Israel and contains cities and other sites intimately wound up in the Jewish people’s history and religious tradition. These connections, and the mountainous region’s strategic importance, have impelled successive Israeli governments to establish Jewish settlements in the region.

But when Israel occupied this region, it also acquired the territory’s large Palestinian population, who opposed the existence of the Jewish state and wanted to see it replaced. Their uprising—the Intifada—in 1987 was followed by an attempt to reach an accommodation during the Oslo peace process whereby a Palestinian state, comprising the West Bank and Gaza Strip, would be established alongside Israel. When negotiations collapsed in the summer of 2000, the Palestinians launched a more deadly uprising—the second, or al-Aqsa Intifada. In 2002, Israel re-established control over those parts of the West Bank it had ceded to the autonomous Palestinian Authority during the peace process. The intensity of the uprising, which reached its climax in a series of suicide bombings in Israeli population centers, convinced Sharon that Israel’s security required a physical barrier that could keep the terrorists out.

The fence has been decried and challenged in court by Palestinians and by Israeli peace advocates both because its route in effect incorporates pieces of the West Bank into Israel proper, and because in many places it cuts Palestinian villages and cities off from places of employment, vital services, and roads that lie on the other side of the barrier.

But the population affected by a fence bisecting the section of the Judean Desert visible from Mount Hetzron is tiny. Furthermore, the planned route south runs almost precisely along the Green Line—the virtual border that separates sovereign Israel from the occupied territory of the West Bank. (In comparison, another section of the fence that impinges on the northern part of the Judean Desert, near Jerusalem, has been the subject of great political controversy—not only does it run through wilderness landscape, but it also puts several chunks of the West Bank onto the Israeli side of the fence.) As a result, while debates have raged and courts have convened over issues connected to other parts of the barrier, the possibility of a fence in the southern part of the desert did not register on anyone’s radar screen, including that of the environmentalists, until late 2006.

“We don’t deny that a fence might have to run between two political entities. We did not oppose the construction of a border fence with Lebanon or with the Gaza Strip. We’d be delighted if there were no need for a fence, but a border fence, like a road, is part of the fabric of life,” Boral explains. So as sections of the fence have been planned and built, he and his staff have sought through negotiation, public pressure, and litigation not to prevent its construction, but rather to ensure that it is built along a route and in such a way as to minimize environmental damage.

Boral claims that the Fence Administration—the government body that oversees the construction of the barrier—promised him when the fence’s route was being planned that the southern portion would end at the frontier of the southern Judean Desert, and that the army would use other methods to keep terrorists from crossing into Israel. The canyons here are so deep and the terrain so rough where the plateau plunges into the rift that it cannot be traversed by vehicle. While a determined terrorist could make it on foot, the assumption is that his progress would be so slow that he could be detected and apprehended. Boral considered the matter closed. Then, last November, he received a phone call from Tzviki Bar-Hai, head of the South Mount Hebron Regional Council, the body that oversees the Israeli settlements in the southernmost West Bank.

“They’ve started,” Bar-Hai told him. Bulldozers and other heavy machinery had begun to move earth to create a path for the fence.

TO BAR-HAI AND HIS FELLOW SETTLERS, the West Bank is the heart of the Holy Land, God’s gift to the Jewish people. In their view, the whole of it must be part of the modern state of Israel and inhabited by Jews. They fear that the fence is the first step toward a government decision to abandon the settlements in the West Bank, just as it abandoned those in the Gaza Strip.

But opposition to the fence is not just about religion and politics. The settlers are one of the Israeli subcultures closest to the land. They, as well as the Orthodox-Zionist community of which they (and I) are also a part, are dedicated hikers, campers, and students of the land’s flora and fauna. Whatever one thinks of the settlers’ political positions, their love of the land and their commitment to preserving the environment is fierce and sincere.

You can see that in the foyer of Bar-Hai’s office in the settlement of Otniel, southwest of Mount Hebron, northwest of Mount Hetzron. The room is decorated with posters—one mourning the evacuation of Israel’s settlements in the Gaza Strip, another encouraging the proper disposal of alkaline batteries. Bar-Hai, blond, jovial, sporting a mustache and a blue kipah (the knitted cap that is the badge of Orthodox Zionists in Israel), first wanted to tell me about the field school at Susia, a settlement to the east—built on the site of an ancient Jewish town. “One of the reasons we came here thirty years ago was to open the area to tourists and hikers,” he said. “We founded the field school and an environmental high school. We are the neighbors of the Judean Desert. We hike there. And then we hear that a fence is supposed to go up in the middle of it.”

Like many of his fellow settlers, Bar-Hai is very focused on the practical aspects of building and maintaining the Jewish presence in the West Bank. He is not one to invoke the desert’s tranquility, even if that is one of the area’s attractions for him. “Each one of our settlements is built over a Jewish settlement that existed here two thousand years ago,” Bar-Hai declared. “All we are doing is renewing it. I think that our presence on the land contributes to preserving the landscape and increases the chances of conservation.”

Otniel, with its neat houses, ordered gardens, and well-dressed inhabitants, lies on the highlands above the desert. But eastward and downward, on the semiarid belt of the desert’s margins, the human ecology is quite different. Here Boral and I, on our way to Mount Hetzron, encountered first tents and then scattered, cubicle concrete-and-plaster houses. Barefoot children in worn, drab smocks, schoolbags on their backs, scampered along the side of the narrow road. They belonged to the Hathalin and Dqaiqa tribes, a population of approximately sixteen hundred Bedouin who farm and graze the highlands’ eastern slopes.

According to a position paper prepared by an Israeli organization called Bimkom, or Planners for Planning Rights, the fence will separate the Bedouin from almost thirteen hundred acres of their agricultural and grazing land, as well as from springs that are vital sources of water. “There can be no doubt,” the authors claim, “that the planners of the barrier tended to treat this desert region, in which these rural people live, as an empty area in which the location of the fence is not of great importance. But it is a region rich in natural resources for the Bedouin, who have learned to use them.”

Rabbis for Human Rights, an anti-occupation human rights organization that has gone to court to fight the fence in a number of locations, has submitted Bimkom’s position paper to support its case against building the fence in the Judean Desert. While in other places Rabbis for Human Rights has conducted legal battles against Israeli settlers to protect the rights of Palestinians, here, contrary to stereotype, the organization and the settlers are fighting together with environmentalists to protect the rights of the local Bedouin. While they disagree about the political future of the area, they have joined forces to stop the fence.

Living between the sedentary villagers and the city dwellers of the top of the ridge, the Bedouin are intimately integrated into the local ecology. They face the same challenges as the region’s animal and plant life, and they have adopted survival strategies that are based on freedom of movement and that require large areas for husbanding scarce resources, the most vital of which is water. In any given year, rain might fall in one wadi and not in another, it might fall farther up the slope or farther down, so the Bedouin’s fields are spread over the landscape. The odds are that some will fail, but others will thrive. Thus the Bedouin are few but need a lot of land to keep their community viable. If the fence divides them from fields and springs on the Israeli side, they will face a much larger risk of crop failure.

The animals that live in the desert pursue a similar survival strategy. The largest is the ibex, a mountain goat with graceful, back-curving horns that roams the ridges and canyons, moving with the rains. “The ibexes spend the summer near the springs in the low areas near the Dead Sea. In the winter, when the rains turn the desert margins green, they ascend to the plateau above to graze,” explains Ron Frumkin, an environmentalist and independent ecological consultant who authored a report on the ecological implications of the barrier. The fence would cut off their access to this grazing area, forcing them to remain near the springs and setting off a chain of ecological repercussions. The ibex would overgraze the vegetation in the lowlands, encouraging greater erosion and thus destroying the habitats of smaller herbivores, such as rabbits. Remaining closer to the springs would also make them more vulnerable to predators, in particular the area’s handful of leopards. While the leopards would have full stomachs, they would be entirely cut off from their fellows in the Negev desert. The Judean Desert’s leopard population has been severely depleted in recent decades: some were killed when they attacked livestock, house cats, and occasionally humans in the area’s villages; some were hunted illegally; and others apparently migrated in search of better and less dangerous hunting grounds. Only replenishment of the population from the Negev can ensure its survival.

The plans for the fence, drawn up with the cooperation of the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, the state body responsible for conservation, call for tunnels to allow small mammals to be able to cross under the fence. That will help to a certain extent, but Frumkin says that foxes, jackals, and other such creatures are too big for the tunnels and that in any case there is no way to know whether the animals will even find and use tunnels built large enough to allow them to pass.


HERODION, a flat-topped mountain southeast of Bethlehem and north of Mount Hetzron, is crowned by the ruins of a palace built by Herod the Great. We hadn’t come for the antiquities, however. What Boral had wanted to show me was the view. The site’s parking lot faces south, forming a balcony above the Teqoa riverbed, still lush and green after the winter rains. If any water was flowing, it was too little for me to see. But the huge pipes that run under the road that crosses the canyon indicated that when it rains torrents rush down the canyon as flash floods that eventually reach the Dead Sea.

The well-ordered, spacious houses of two Israeli settlements lay on either side of the riverbed. Just below the mountain we stood on, right on the main road, was an army base and a clutch of Arab houses that looked faded, small, and run down compared to those in the settlements. Were Israel to want to build a barrier, it would be impossible to find a path that could divide Arab from Jew without blocking the riverbed. Boral had brought me here to demonstrate that there are ways to provide security without building a wall.

He pointed to a pole standing on the other side of the canyon, just below the first houses of the settlement. On top was a small, black box—a surveillance device that detects terrorists who attempt to sneak into the settlement. “It can pick up a crawling person within one hundred to two hundred meters,” he explained. “Anything detected sets off a buzzer at the observation post in the army base. A patrol car from the base can get there within minutes.”

“But don’t animals set it off also?” I recalled my own days in the army, when wild boars and deer triggered the electronic fence my unit patrolled on Mount Hermon, up north.

“The technicians can learn to distinguish between a fox and a human being by the shape they make on the screen,” Boral replied. “Thirty-two of these devices have protected this area of nearly two and a half square miles during the last three years. The same system is used to protect fourteen other settlements. If it works here, why shouldn’t it work in the desert?”

Marc Luria isn’t convinced that it will. “The security effect of the entire fence is only as good as its weakest link,” he maintains.

I met Luria in the offices of his small software-consulting firm in Jerusalem’s Talpiot commercial district, just a two-minute walk from my home. Luria is a founder of the Public Council for a Security Fence for Israel, and currently serves as its liaison to the government and the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. The organization came into being eight years ago when the Intifada was at its height.

“If Mexicans or Canadians were engaging in suicide bombing, everyone would agree that the United States would need a fence to keep them out,” he told me. “Look what people have been willing to put up with in terms of airport security. We’re now sitting a five-minute drive from the Green Line. More than 250 residents of Jerusalem have been killed during the Intifada. I myself have attended eight funerals. That’s just unacceptable.”

According to figures provided by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, between 2000 and 2003, Palestinian terrorists carried out 73 attacks, killing 293 Israelis and wounding 1,950. From 2003 to 2006, the period in which the fence was gradually erected, there were 12 attacks, killing 64 Israelis and wounding 445.

Luria has little confidence that surveillance devices alone can offer the same level of security as an electronic fence. They require trained personnel and a level of vigilance that he frankly doesn’t believe the army can provide. True, no suicide bombers have yet crossed the Judean Desert, he acknowledged, but if that area remains open when the rest of the fence is built, the terrorists will find the means to overcome the difficult terrain. The environmental problems can be resolved, he said.

Marc Luria is an absolutist when it comes to the fence, but even those political leaders who are genuinely concerned about its environmental consequences don’t want to appear in newspaper headlines as the person whose qualms led to a terrorist getting through to explode himself on a bus or in a mall. That’s the position of the minister of environmental protection, Gidon Ezra.

“First and foremost, human life is more important than anything else,” he said in a telephone interview. “Some of us think that the territory can be controlled without a fence, but so far the military has not been convinced. We would like to find an alternative, but in the end the army will decide.” The army’s official position remains that electronic warning systems cannot provide the same level of protection that a fence can.


Tzviki Bar-Hai, the settlement leader, thinks he knows why the army still insists that the fence is necessary. “The army is a prisoner of its preconceptions,” he maintains. “Our claim is that since we have an awesome natural resource here and a lot of space distant from both Palestinian and Jewish settlements, it’s possible to find alternative means of defense. It can be done in ways that do not wound the landscape.”

“The army,” he said, “only measures defense, but there’s more to life than that.”

For now, the desert is enjoying a temporary reprieve. Late in 2006, the environmentalists and settlers convinced then minister of defense Amir Peretz to halt work on this section of the fence, pending a study of the alternatives. The bulldozers moved out, but last summer Peretz was replaced by former prime minister Ehud Barak. Barak has not yet made any public statement about the issue.

Even anti-fence environmentalists like Ron Frumkin know that opposing the barrier is a nonstarter with both the public and the government. But Frumkin says he hasn’t seen any evidence that convinces him that the fence in the southern Judean Desert is necessary. The most telling point is that since construction was stopped more than a year ago not a single terrorist has crossed into Israel over the fence’s planned route. Still, his report concentrates on offering recommendations for building in the least damaging way. It states, for example, that gaps must be left in the fence to accommodate migration routes used by ibex and deer. Noting that the government and army say the fence is a temporary security measure that will be dismantled when a peace agreement is reached, Frumkin argues that it must be built so that it can be dismantled without causing further damage, and plans must be made to rehabilitate the landscape when that happens.

ATOP MOUNT HEZRON, the shadow of Mount Hebron has overtaken us, but the setting sun still illuminates the peaks that run along the cliff to our east, before its precipitous drop to the Dead Sea. The desert is silent. But from our vantage point Boral points out the plains below where, in ancient times, armies marched and fought battles. War is a constant presence in this landscape. “Sometimes,” he sighs, “I ask myself if we haven’t taken leave of our senses.”

Like Boral (and Bar-Hai and all the other Israelis I quote here), I have fought for this land in wars and conflicts. When a piece of land is part of your history, your religion, your identity, when you’ve defended it and seen people die for it, you want to protect it, preserve it—and possess it. And yet these feelings do not trump the fact that another people live on this land and feel no less powerful an attachment to it. I do not wish to be a part of a society founded on an injustice, so I support the Palestinians’ right to have their own country, even if it means giving up this place to which I am so fiercely attached.

As a former soldier, I know that added security for my country often means misery for the Palestinians. The fence is meant to protect me, but it will scar the land we share. As a lover of and frequent hiker over its mountains and through its canyons, I cannot bear to see the desert also under attack. But I do not want to return to the days of the bus bombings, when I had to fear for the lives of my children when they took public transportation to and from school. There are no ideal solutions here, only risks, and a choice between a set of unattractive options. That is part of our tragedy. 

 

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Haim Watzman lives in Jerusalem. He is the author of Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel and A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley.

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