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(photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Yielding to pressure from leading environmentalist groups, Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered the defense establishment to halt construction Tuesday of a section of the West Bank security fence routed to run through the Judean Desert.
Peretz also asked defense officials involved in engineering the fence route for a security measure that could replace the original route without causing damage to the environment. The government has already spent NIS one million on that section of the fence, whose route runs 30 kilometers from Metzudat Yehuda (Beit Yatir) to Nahal Tavor.
Defense officials said that one possibility under consideration would be to keep the route as is but to secure the area with electronic devices, such as advanced radar systems, cameras and other sensors.
Peretz's decision followed a request by a number of Knesset members, including Labor Party Secretary-General, MK Yoram Marciano, to suspend the construction.
"I am happy that the unnecessary construction of the security fence in the Judean Desert area has been halted," Marciano told Tuesday's meeting of the Knesset's Education, Culture and Sports Committee.
Marciano and MK Uri Ariel, of the National Union-National Religious Party faction, visited the fence last week and conferred with environmental organizations to propose alternative routes that could minimize damage to nature. The construction model presented by the two MKs would cost nearly half of the current projected cost of NIS 450 million.
"I welcome the defense minister decision," said Ariel. "This fence was planned illogically."
During the committee meeting, environmental organizations that had helped the Defense Ministry plan the fence's route explained that they had done so under the belief that the government was set on building a fence and would not consider other options.
"Clearly Israel's environmental lobby would rather see other security options explored before a fence is built," said Ra'anan Borel, a representative from the Society for the Protection of Nature.
Brig.-Gen. Ran Ophir, who oversees the fence construction, told the committee that as long as Israel's security objectives were not harmed, he was open to exploring other options in the area.
"At every step we have consulted with officials from various organizations and made changes appropriately," said Ophir.
Recently, environmentalists and settlers have joined forces to preserve nature reserves and settlements in the Hebron Hills area. According to representatives from those groups, the fence will scar the landscape and disrupt the ecosystem of the area.
"This fence cuts off several key routes that animals travel along," wrote Dr. Yossi Lashem, former general-secretary of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, in a letter to IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz Tuesday. Lashem said that if animals could not move freely, it would destroy food access for birds of prey.
The Hebron Hills Municipality responded to Peretz's decision with a statement, saying that common sense and nature had prevailed and that better security for Israeli citizens could be ensured with an electronic warning system.