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Route of Israel’s Security Barrier Raises Concerns Among Ecologists

July 6, 2004
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For months, Palestinians have blasted Israel’s West Bank security barrier as an “apartheid wall” that will extinguish Palestinian national goals. But an Israeli ecologist says the fence’s potential impact on plant and animal life has been completely overlooked.

Noa Olchovsky, campaign coordinator on the fence for Green Action, an Israeli environmental group that advocates “socio-ecological change,” said the proposed border zone threatens Israel’s ecological system.

“What will tear the ecological system is the separation fence itself,” she said. “Animals won’t be able to get from the places they sleep to the places they drink water. Trees and plants won’t be able to reproduce themselves properly, because their seeds won’t be carried by the wind more than 8 meters in one direction. In a few years, certain species of animals and plants in the region will be extinct.”

The environmental claims come as the fence has been heavily cri! ticized by pro-Palestinian activists around the world, who see land the Palestinians desire for a future state being lost on the Israeli side of the fence. Palestinians also fret that the barrier will close off their most effective weapon against Israel — suicide terrorism.

Now some Israelis are raising the specter of environmental damage as well.

Already, Olchovsky says, Israel has uprooted hundreds of trees and bulldozed Palestinian farmland to build the fence and a patrol road alongside it.

Yehoshua Shkedi, landscape ecologist for Israel’s Nature Reserve Authority, the governmental body in charge of natural conservation, says the problem with the fence is two-fold: “It will destroy everything within its range,” he says, and will impact ecological corridors.

“It blocks movement of animals and impedes the growth of plants that are dispersed on the fur of animals,” he says.

An Israeli army spokesman, Capt. Ya’acov Dallal, rejected the criticism.

“If an an! imal were to walk by, the animal wouldn’t be harmed by the fence,” he said. “It’s a fence.”

And supporters note that the fence protects the most important species — human beings. With the number of Palestinian terrorist attacks down precipitously in areas where the barrier already is in place, supporters say potential damage to animal and plant life really is beside the point.

“While they listed the complaints of the birds and the animals, they neglected to mention that the reason the fence is being built is to save people,” Dallal said. “The fence is saving lives. We have to start from that premise.”

In addition, he said, the fence “can also be moved if the security situation changes, if there’s an agreement with the Palestinians. It’s not a final border, so it’s not something that necessarily is permanent.”

But ecologist Ron Frumkin says that even if the fence comes down in a few years, “the scar on the land will stay for up to thousands of years.”

Dallal disagrees.

“The fence is not an obtrusive obstacle to such a degr! ee that it causes irreparable damage,” he said.

For most of its planned 450-mile route, the barrier is a sophisticated network of wire-mesh fences built with electronic sensors, patrol roads, ditches, cameras and watchtowers. In some short spans, the barrier is a concrete wall.

Dallal said a variety of factors determined the route of the fence, which runs roughly along the Green Line, the boundary between Israel and the Jordanian-controlled West Bank prior to the 1967 Six-Day War.

“We’re using the Green Line as some sort of a contour,” he said. “We want to have as many Israelis on the one side, as many Palestinians on the other, so that Israelis can go on with their lives and Palestinians can go on with theirs. Wherever you draw a line, it’s difficult.”

Frumkin said ecologists want to talk not about whether Israel needs the fence, but “where to put it, how to put it, so that the damage will be minimal, both to ecology and people.”

Frumkin says he and his! wife, Tamar Ahiron-Frumkin, sat down recently with geologists and sec urity consultants from the Council for Peace and Security, a left-leaning think tank, to prepare a report on an alternative fence route.

“It’s possible to do the fence in a different way,” Frumkin said, “so that it’s good for security, for ecology, and for the aesthetic view.”

For example, Frumkin said, building on flat land instead of slopes, and building on the northern side of hills, where there is more rain and less direct sun, would help the land recover faster if the fence one day comes down.

He also said that setting the fence along a straight route rather than a circuitous one would cut its length by half and thus affect less land.

In Jerusalem, where there is a fence winding around the city, Shkedi said, “it’s a pocket closed from three sides. The effect of the fence there is very bad.”

So far, Frumkin said, Israel has not given serious consideration to ecologically preferable alternatives for the route.

“If it was done, it wasn’t done properly, ! with professional people to look at the possible alternatives,” he said. The government “only looked at security.”

Dallal rejected that assertion.

“There is a whole host of considerations that must be taken into account,” he said, including security, operational, environmental and social concerns.

“It’s also a question of priorities,” Dallal said. “Foremost among them is saving Israeli lives.”

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