Fencing Israel: Terrorism, wilderness, and the Israeli security wall by Haim Watzman
Published in the March/April 2008 issue of Orion magazine.
Map: Mike Reagan
Photographs: Daniel Blatt
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.
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