In the West Bank village of Battir, Israel’s Separation Wall threatens to cut farmers off their land and destroy famed, millennia-old agricultural terraces. Struggling to prevent destruction, villagers have joined forces with environmentalists and battle the Wall in court. An unusual success, this initiative even brought an Israeli state authority to speak out against the Wall. On Wednesday May 1st, court hearings enter a second round. In the discourse surrounding Battir, however, arguments for protecting the landscape threaten to drown concern for people’s rights.
In the struggle to save the ‘Battir paradise’, are the concerns of local residents being ignored?
The Battir village sprawls on an edge of the West Bank plateau just south of Jerusalem. Houses overlook fertile valleys which the area’s numerous springs have carved out of rock bed. Lush agricultural terraces line the hills, and down in the valley curve historic railway tracks linking Jerusalem with the coast. The few trains each day passing Battir nowadays, however, do no stop anymore.
Picturesque Battir harbours contested political frontiers. The Green Line, determined in 1949 and seemingly still the border of a Palestinian state-to-be, runs right through village lands. The division is invisible thus far: Villagers continue to cultivate their lands on the Israeli side due to a unique agreement struck in 1949 with Israel’s Moshe Dayan in return for guaranteed safe passage for Israeli trains. But the idyll is doomed to end as Israel’s planned Separation Wall will cut Battir’s cultured landscape into pieces. Villagers and environmentalists have risen up in opposition.
International media deplore damage to “paradise”
Since plans for the Separation Wall began to be debated around 2004, the issue of Battir has received prominent attention. Political bodies in both Palestine and Israel considered the village, UNESCO became involved to protect the village’s heritage and the topic was covered extensively by the international media. The prestigious British Guardian deplored in June 2012 that the Separation Wall “threatens Battir’s ancient terraces.” The New York Times and other papers ran similar stories. A major German daily even celebrated Battir’s “Resistance through heritage preservation.” Yet while these pieces well described the threat to this “paradise” of a landscape, the Wall’s impact on the people of Battir has been relegated to a back seat. In fact, contentions against the Wall as such – after all, declared illegal by the International Court of Justice – hardly find mention any more.
The struggle against the Separation Wall in Battir reflects the evolving struggle against the Wall throughout the West Bank and Jerusalem
The environment, culture, livelihoods, freedoms – the Battir struggle is caught up somewhere in this mix. In many ways, the case highlights both the creativity and fragmentation that evolved in fighting the Separation Wall. Resistance, after all, is a struggle with occupation, but also a struggle in itself, as the framing of issues is constantly re-negotiated.
An Israeli state body opposes the wall in Battir
Concerning Battir, opponents of the Wall make for an unusual mix: Even an Israeli state authority recently came out against the planned route of the wall through the village. Their concern – protecting the landscape – differs from the villagers’, who seek to protect dignified livelihoods. Before the Israeli court, however, these disparate parties come together in opposition to the Wall.
Beginning in 2004, the Battir village received various military orders confiscating lands for construction of the Separation Wall. Villagers appealed the Wall in Israeli courts, arguing it would cut them off from their lands and disrupt the cultured landscape, including the sensitive irrigation system. In 2012, Battir residents were joined by the environmental organisation Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), pleading to alter route and type of the Wall around Battir. The appeal of FoEME added strength to the villagers’ petition by pointing out that protecting Battir’s landscape was in the interest of Israel, too. A daring move, the organization sued the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to come out with a statement on the matter. To the surprise of many, the authority spoke out against the Wall. Considering that Israeli security improved since the route of the Wall was conceived in 2005, the authority argued, public interest in “protecting this special and valuable area” now demanded that “alternatives” to the Wall be considered. That was in December 2012.
Israeli Ministry of Defense: Build fences, not walls
Israel’s Ministry of Defense responded by suggesting to exchange the proposed Wall with a “fence”. Villagers and environmentalists oppose the proposal: A fence still makes access to their fields dependent on soldiers’ benevolence, argue the villagers; wire still destroys the terraces, environmentalists lament.
On May 1st, court hearings will enter their second round. Gidon Bromberg, Israeli head of FoEME, is optimistic: “We feel in quite a strong position right now: In the end we made an Israeli government authority speak out against the Wall.”
His organization, however, is not well regarded by many in Palestine: Founded with the hopes of the Oslo peace process years, FoEME was conceived as a cross-border initiative, with teams in Israel, Jordan and occupied Palestine. It thought to promote more sustainable use of the region’s resources, especially water. Now the organization is accused of “normalisation,” a derogative referring to initiatives linking Palestinian issues with Israel while not explicitly fighting Israel’s occupation of Palestine. To Battiris, the term is more than a critical label: People debate with fervour how to associate with the environmentalists.
No level playing-field in West Bank hills
“We must not forget that we are not equal players,” says Hassan Muamer, who runs the Battir Landscape Ecomuseum, an initiative aiming to conserve Battir’s cultured environment and continue its sustainable use. With support of UNESCO, his team has mapped the area and renovated hiking paths for locals and tourists alike. “When FoEME suggested bringing Israelis here for a day of hiking to draw attention to the case, I could not agree: How could I when I know very well that Palestinians cannot hike the other side of the valley?”
Nonetheless, it was decided to engage with the Israeli environmentalists. A conscious choice that in many ways suits the village that never shied away from striking compromise when it secured Battir’s integrity. “There have not been protests here since the first Intifada,” Muamer points out, “we opted for agriculture as resistance.”
For Battir residents, farming is their primary form of resistance to Israel’s occupation
To this end, his project seeks to reinvigorate farming in Battir’s terraces. Cultivating the famed Battiri eggplant, for example. Any work in the landscape, however, is undertaken with care: “We can refurbish existing structures, but we refrain from building any new ones. Why provoke a demolition?” About 75% of Battir’s lands are designated as Area C and thus subject to full Israeli control. The remains are Area B, where civil matters are governed by the Palestinian Authority. Building any permanent structures in Area C requires the permission of Israel’s military administration. The lack of such permission can mean disaster, proven weekly as “unrecognized” buildings are demolished by Israeli bulldozers. The Makhrour restaurant is a case in point: It was torn down in mid-April just outside of Battir.
If you cannot enclose them, observe them
According to observers, the Makhrour demolition illustrates that plans for the Wall now run hot in Jerusalem’s south. Construction of the Wall in this area had been delayed for years. Earlier this week, however, Israeli courts ruled legal the route of the Wall encircling theCremisan monastery in a nearby valley. Works on the Wall are quickly proceeding in the village of Al-Walaja, neighboring Battir. Settlements on all sides, meanwhile, are rapidly expanding.
Whereas still no Wall or fence seals off Battir, cameras have been installed on a nearby hilltop which – according to soldiers patrolling the area – enable 24/7 surveillance of the area, including vast parts of Battir’s old town. “As soon as villagers cross the invisible border, patrols come to check,” Muamer describes. If environmental concerns convince the Israeli courts to oppose a Wall or fence, the alternative would likely mean more surveillance. That is in a best-case scenario. Of personal freedoms there is no mention.
(Source / 01.05.2013)