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Breaking Up Bomb Plots--and Habitats?

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Science  21 Apr 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5772, pp. 354-355
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5772.354
Hidden costs.

The security barrier may damage agriculture and harm wildlife, critics say.

CREDIT: CORBIS

WADI FUQEEN, WEST BANK—From his village cradled in this ancient valley, Muhammad Manasra (Abu Mazen) can see trouble looming in every direction. Atop the northern hillcrest, the Israeli village of Zur Hadasah spills over the Green Line that has divided Israel from the Palestinian territories since 1967. To the south, the concrete high rises of an Israeli settlement, Beitar Elite, stare down over the rim. A rumbling echo fills the air as bulldozers raze the eastern hilltop to make way for thousands more settlers. But what most worries Abu Mazen, a village council member, is approaching from the north: a 50-meter-wide obstacle course of fences, ditches, and razor wire known as the security barrier. He fears that it will disrupt the flow of rainwater that has recharged the valley's springs for millennia. “Without water, we cannot farm,” he says. “Without farming, we cannot live here.”

The partially constructed, 670-kilometer barrier has a big value, many Israelis say: It deters suicide bombers. But critics on both sides of the Green Line say it is also wreaking havoc on the environment. “Wadi Fuqeen will not be its only casualty,” says Yaakov Garb, an environmental researcher at Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, Israel, and Brown University. Besides disrupting the flow of surface water, Garb says the barrier could damage the region's unique ecosystems by blocking animal migration. Others are not so sure. “Fragmentation of habitats is our biggest problem, but I don't think [the barrier] is any worse for wildlife than our other roads and fences,” says Tamar Dayan, an ecologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

To assess the impact of the barrier and other developments, Israeli scientists are assembling a network of long-term environmental monitoring stations. The plan started 7 years ago as a promising U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian collaboration, but after the second intifada, the Palestinians dropped out. Israel has forged ahead with plans to link up 11 existing research stations next year. Data will be pooled on computers at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and made freely available on the Internet.

The network's aim is to spot even the subtlest changes in the environment over several decades. “Long-term research is the only way to get the real answers,” says Avi Perevolotzky, an ecologist at Israel's Agricultural Research Organization in Bet Dagan. It is unclear how long it will take to assess the barrier's impact. And without equivalent data from the Palestinian territories, researchers will have only half the picture.

“We want to collaborate,” says Perevolotzky. A one-sided affair could pose huge problems for decision-makers. “When you work with the environment here, it is impossible to separate politics from science,” says Yehoshua Shkedy, an ecologist with the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority.

Shkedy pulls out a rumpled topographic map. “You can see what makes this place so special,” he says. Like the spokes of a giant wheel, four slabs of color for different biogeographic zones converge. Each represents a distinct recipe of environmental ingredients, such as rainfall and soil type, that supports a characteristic assemblage of species. This is the only place in the world where the scrublands of Iran and Iraq collide with the oasis palms of eastern Africa, where dense Mediterranean oak groves meet Saharan sand dunes. And altitudes range from the peak of Mount Meron at 1200 meters down to the salt-caked shore of the Dead Sea at 400 meters below sea level, the lowest land on earth. “What's amazing,” says Shkedy, “is that, in spite of 10,000 years of agriculture and urbanization, we're still ecologically healthy,” with more than 100 species of plant per square kilometer on average and a menagerie of big animals such as leopards, jackals, gazelles, and wolves.

This spot is also the explosive meeting point of two fast-growing populations. “Both Israelis and Palestinians are rushing to claim and develop the land,” says Shkedy, “and our job as scientists is to give advice.” But sometimes it isn't welcome. For example, he asks, “Which direction should Jerusalem be allowed to expand, east or west?” Many important habitats lie to the west, “so from a conservation standpoint, we should say east.” This would delight hawkish politicians who want Israel to expand in that direction, but Shkedy says that outcome “would surely lose the Palestinian cooperation we need to manage the environment over the long term.”

The only way to preserve Israel's biological assets, says Shkedy, is to try to get beyond politics and take a long view. “What is most important for conservation is to keep the four biogeographic zones connected,” he says. So 6 years ago, he and other ecologists proposed to link them with a network of corridors where development would be off-limits. But then came the second intifada and the security barrier, construction of which started in 2002 (see map). “Look, it just could not be worse,” says Shkedy, tracing the barrier's jagged course on the map as it slices back and forth through the corridors. Shkedy and others have proposed a “virtual” barrier, an electronic system that detects people but allows wildlife to pass freely. However, the Israeli Ministry of Defense last year shot down that idea on the grounds that it would not provide a sufficient deterrent to interlopers.

A farmer's fears.

Abu Mazen (right) says his village in Wadi Fuqeen will wither if the security barrier impedes water flow.

CREDIT: J. BOHANNON/SCIENCE

The security barrier is part of a larger problem, says Shkedy. With casualties on both sides almost every day, “people say the environment is the least of our concerns,” he says. “But if the land becomes ruined, then what are we all fighting for?”

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