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Land for Peace in the Battle Over Millennia-Old Palestinian Farming Terraces

In the village of Battir, green ideals and cultural heritage override detailed plans for Israel’s separation wall

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A Palestinian farmer irrigates her land in the West Bank village of Battir, located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, on June 17, 2012. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
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Drive into the village of Battir on a weekday afternoon, and among the kids playing soccer in the streets and the lush fig trees outside modest homes, you are likely to see an old man or woman walking toward the fields, an antiquated hoe in hand. They are farming in the hundreds of acres of terraces watered by a Roman-era irrigation system. On a recent Tuesday, Battir Mayor Akram Bader showed me around the village fields. Water gushed into a Roman spring at the top of the farmland and gurgled from there to a large pool that feeds a network of pipes and channels that descend the stepped land. Water is divided among the villagers by clan. Each day, an old man clambers into the pool and measures the water, allotting one of the eight extended families who live there the right to water their fields from sunrise to sunset. They use rocks and cloths to guide the flow onto terraces plowed into mazelike furrows, a system that irrigates tall and ancient fig trees, aromatic mint, and seedlings of eggplant, a local specialty.

“I don’t know how many thousands of people passed here,” Bader said. “When I walk here, I think about all the years and the huge number of people who used this path to make their way.” In fact, the irrigation system is so extensive and unusual that in 2011 Battir won a $15,000 prize from the U.N. cultural body UNESCO for the “Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes.” The most ardent managers of that land are weathered farmers in their sixties and seventies, undeterred by the steep stone steps they must climb to tend their tiny patches of vegetables.

For the past few years, Battir’s residents feared their 4,000-year-old farming heritage would soon hit a wall—because of the Israeli army’s plan to build a wall across their fields as part  of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank. But a coalition of Palestinian and Israeli environmental activists, helped by an unlikely partner in the Israeli government, protested the route in Israel’s High Court of Justice and earned an injunction against the plan. It was a rare win for environmental concerns in the discussions around the barrier, and it showed both the power and the limits of green ideals when facing off against security concerns in Israel.

***

Because Battir is a border community, its survival as an intact farming village is a historical anomaly. In 1949, as Israel and its Arab neighbors signed a ceasefire agreement, what became the border between Israel and Jordan ran between dozens of farming villages and their land. Nearly all the West Bank villages with land in what became Israel lost that territory. Battir, though, was different. Then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan offered Battir’s residents a deal: They would protect the train track that ran across their fields, and in exchange they could keep tending their terraces that ran in both the West Bank and Israel.

Six decades later, the train still chugs through the valley, with an Israeli jeep sweeping the tracks just ahead of it and an army watchtower overlooking from a nearby hilltop. But an official at the Defense Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said this arrangement is not enough to keep out potential hostile infiltrators, and the gaping hole in the separation barrier is a breach in security that must be fixed.

Israel began building the separation barrier in 2003 in response to a wave of deadly Palestinian attacks on Israeli cities. The barrier, part fence and part wall, snakes around the West Bank border and has been credited by some Israeli military experts with bringing down hostile attacks inside Israel. But Palestinian critics point out that the wall often diverts to include settlement blocks, and about 8.5 percent of the West Bank has been included on the “Israeli” side of the barrier. According to Shaul Arieli, an Israeli expert on the barrier, it is about 845 kilometers long, and two-thirds has been built. Many of the unbuilt sections, including the one that would pass through Battir, are locked in legal battles.

One of the most famous cases is that of the village of Bil’in, in the northern West Bank. The fence built there initially took half the village’s land, but in 2007 the Israeli High Court ruled the fence had to be moved. Three years later, the army moved the barrier westward. Other villages are not so lucky. Walajeh, a village just south of Jerusalem, is now being surrounded by a concrete wall and fence on all sides, and Israeli courts overruled their objections. The Cremisan Monastery to Walajeh’s south will also lose land to the wall.

Battir is part of a cluster of farming villages that includes nearby Wadi Fuqin, another picturesque hamlet with old men kneeling over onion patches. For the last 10 years, Israelis and Palestinians have been coordinating joint environmental activities through Friends of the Earth Middle East, an organization with offices in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, and Amman. Australian-Israeli founder Gidon Bromberg says activists in Wadi Fuqin fought against a wall planned on their land and then told his office about Battir’s struggle to maintain its fields.

“We understood the incredible value of the Battir landscape, that it was the most perfect, intact, man-made landscape of the area,” Bromberg said. He and FoEME’s attorney Michael Sfard filed suit in the High Court of Justice, claiming the fence would have to be moved to preserve the land. They had heard rumors that the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which approved the fence’s original route in 2005, might have had a change of heart eight years later. So, Sfard included the INPA in the lawsuit. In its 13-page policy paper, the INPA stated it had changed its mind and that the urgent security climate that once made them quick to approve security measures had grown less threatening. Furthermore, Battir’s terraces, the authority claimed, were also an Israeli heritage site and should be carefully safeguarded.

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James Kaplan says:

How can the village be 4,000 years old and palestinian? The Muslim invaders raped and murdered their way across the Levant only after the 5th century CE. Even the arab Christians have only been present since the 2nd century or so. Perhaps they are some other culture who swooped in to take possession after the Babylonian or Roman empires kicked the Jews out?

Marina Martsinkevich says:

The solution to the problem could be much easier if Palestinians, instead of launching terror attacks on Israelis, had ratified the Oslo Accords signed by their Arafat and Mazen. Then no barriers would be necessary. As simple as this.

mishamb says:

Battir was once known as Betar and obviously it was a Jewish village. The hill has a long and important history with a number of significant Jewish artifacts discovered during archeological work at the site. Most significantly, it was Bar Kochba’s headquarters during the revolt against Rome and apparently he chose the village because of its hilltop location and the spring that provided a constant source of water. When Bar Kochba was killed at Betar, his revolt ended.

I understand why the Palestinians want to erase this history. I don’t understand why a Jewish publication wouldn’t even mention the Jewish history of such a significant site. It’s particularly relevant here, because it adds another argument for re-routing the security barrier. I think it shows something is wrong.

ginzy1 says:

In the finest Tablet tradition, Cheslow omits some important, but inconvenient facts. Most notably that Battir is the original Beitar, a town that goes back at least in to the Second Temple period and is most famous as the last stand of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 CE. Indeed, the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamzon (“Grace After Meals”) was penned (or quilled?) because the Jewish survivors of the Bar Kokhba revolt (they were very few) were able to go to Beitar and bury the dead.

And even more ironic (and indicative of Cheslow’s historical ignorance or PC motivated editing) is the fact that Judea (as it was then known) was renamed “Palestine” by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the aftermath of the revolt (which took 6 full legions to put down) in order erase any Jewish connection to the land, a tradition which Cheslow seems to carry on with great enthusiasm. So to say it has been “Palestinian” for 4,000 years is pure ignorance. Or political correcticsim.

And the methods used for guiding the irrigation water and dealing with ownership and use rights & priorities are discussed extensively in the Talmud and not in the context of Palestinians.

There is more, like an old Battir tradition warning about the return of Jews to the land (in the early 20th century a Christian geographer / archeologist exploring the area was nearly killed until he convinced the Battiris he wasn’t Jewish), but I don’t have time for that now.

hg

J’lem / Efrata

ginzy1 says:

“. I don’t understand why a Jewish publication wouldn’t even mention the Jewish history of such a significant site.”

Because political correctness is inversely proportional to factual correctness and before it is a Jewish publication, Tablet is a politically correct one.

James Kaplan says:

If we would only rebuild our temple all the PC manure would be moot…so too the barrier(s). Thank you all for also replying, I was beginning to thing I was the only Jew over 21 who read this stuff and got queasy over it!

James Kaplan says:

I would not discount the age of the staff and fear of editorial recrimination by advertisers or potentials. It’s sad that an uneducated Oregon hippy Reforfm Jew knows bs on sight, yet it slips through editorial controls…if any is extant.

Sandy Perlmutter says:

People have been there on that land for maybe 4,000 years. As recently as the second century CE they were known to be Jews (and possibly others). There has been a lot of war and turmoil for almost 2000 more years, including the forced conversion to Islam of everyone in the Islamic Conquest’s path. Still, there are people using the customary methods of irrigation to raise their crops. Still, there are olive trees with known owners.

Let both sides respect the people who live on the land, and let the wall go around them as you would go around an artistic monument. It is cruel to step all over an existing culture, especially one with a long heritage. If only the Muslims had understood that building a mosque in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount, as the result of a hallucination, was a desecration of another, older culture!

David Zohar says:

As a Jerusalemite who can practically see the formerly Jewish village of Beitar (now Battir) from his window I concur with all those who decry the myopia and ignorance
of The Tablet when it comes to Jewish history.

David Zohar
Jerusalem Historical Museum Guide

rudolfvs says:

It appears Israel is a country where the rules of the law applies;
this is in stark contrast to the conditions in the countries surrounding Israel.
My guess is the mohammedans living in Israel are grateful being able to live there.

ginzy1 says:

One more (among others) factual distortion proffered by Cheslow, her referring to the Green Line as a “border”. The Green Line was never a “border”, let alone a recognized one; rather it was an “cease fire line” or at most an “armistice line”.

The difference between a “border” vs. a “cease fire line”or “armistice line” are far from academic but have real differences in law. This is best illustrated by the factual history here.

During the 1949 cease fire talks between the nascent Israel and the attacking Arab states, Israel did want the Green Line recognized as a border. However at the insistence of then Transjordan and backed by the Arab states it was only to be a cease-fire or armistice line.

So with the exception of the cease-fire line with Lebanon, none of the cease fire lines (Syria, Jordan, and Egypt (including Gaza) were recognized as borders. (The Lebanese story has an interesting twist to it notably in the aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000 but that is a different story).

The Arab’s reasoning was simple. Borders are permanent, imply a quasi recognition and are moved only by negotiation between the parties. Cease fire lines move, do not imply any recognition and most of all are moved as a function of the ebbs & flow of the conflict (i.e., force). The Arab states clearly hoped to push back Israel at minimum to the absurd 1947 UN lines (which Israel accepted and they rejected) if not eliminate the state altogether. Hence, no “border” only cease fire lines.

In the early 1950′s Israel requested that the UN recognize the cease fire lines as borders but this was blocked by (among others) the USA which was pressuring Israel at the time to give up most of the Negev to allow territorial contiguity between Egypt and Jordan (Eisenhower was trying to curry favor at the time with Egypt’s Nasser at Israel’s expense, a policy which he later came to regret).

So Israel didn’t have any borders (except with Lebanon) and the Green Line running near Battir was merely a cease fire line. And indeed in 1967 the Arab states attacked Israel with the intent of moving that cease fire line inward or shrinking it to zero, but instead the cease fire line moved in the opposite direction and that is the way the matzah flips.

So when did the cease fire lines begin to get called a “border”. My impression is in the mid-to-late 1980s (although I can’t point to a specific event or date or source) when the new PC fashions started dictating that Israel was bad and the Pals blameless victims and middle east historical revisionism became rampant and Arafat, under the coaching of Jimmy Carter, was trying to present himself as a reasonable bloke.

So once again we have a fine demonstration of how political correctness is inversely proportional to factual correctness. And to loosely paraphrase Shakespeare, Cheslow is a very PC person and Tablet is a very PC publication.

hg

J’lem / Efrat

rightcoaster says:

Thanks to all the commenters who have provided “the rest of the story”. If Ms Cheslow were instructed to rewrite her story to include this background information and the boundary-vs-ceasefire semantic corrections it would be well-done, as well as heartwarming both to the ignorant (like me before I read the comments) and to the well-informed, instead of heart-burning to those who had the facts. She should certainly want to avoid the charge of being both factually deficient and anti-semantic.

Daniella Cheslow says:

Several Tablet readers have requested more information about the Jewish history of the Battir village. Thank you for your careful read of this story and your criticism.

I did not include the following information in my article because the struggle there today is between the farmers who inhabit the village and the Israeli defense ministry. Therefore, the ancient Jewish history of a nearby site seemed relatively marginal, which is why I wrote that the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority claimed that Battir’s terraces “were also an Israeli heritage site and should be carefully safeguarded.”

However, in retrospect it seems more details about the history of Beitar would only add richness and Jewish history to this story.

According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) court brief, available in Hebrew here (http://foeme.org/uploads/Battir_Israel_Nature_Parks_Authority_Expert_Opinion.pdf), the ancient city of Beitar is near the modern village of Battir and south of the planned security barrier. Maimonides writes that Beitar was a large city, “and there were thousands of Israel there, and they had a great king.” Jewish sages say there were 500 schools in Beitar and each had 500 students.

During the Bar Kochba revolt against Roman rule, Beitar was the Jews’ last stand. In 135 AD, the Romans sacked the city. According to the Mishnah in Masechet Ta’anit, Beitar was captured and plowed under on the ninth of Av. Blood flowed in rivers so high they reached the nostrils of the horses that walked through the streets. After Beitar fell, the Romans changed the name of Judea to Syria Palastina, the Jewish community was demolished and its kings disappeared.

In its brief to the court, the INPA noted that Battir residents call a nearby ruin “Khirbet al-Yahudi”, or “the Jewish ruin.” “There is no doubt that no one would think of sending Massada behind a barrier and giving up the right to excavate it as a heritage site,” the INPA notes in its brief. However, “somehow the story of Beitar has been forgotten.”

Yuval Peled of the INPA told Tablet that his organization has submitted a proposal to the army’s Civil Administration to develop a national park at Tel Beitar. The site is in Area C of the West Bank, which according to the Oslo Accords is under Israeli security and planning control.

Benny Morris noted in 2012 that an article on Battir in the Israeli daily Haaretz had completely neglected the site’s Jewish history. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/06/05/beitar-s-legacy.html. Thanks to the readers of this site for pointing out Tablet’s similar omission.

ginzy1 says:

Now if you will change “borders” to cease fire lines or armistice lines, you could truly claim a modicum of intellectual honesty.

hg

rightcoaster says:

And thanks to you for stepping up to the challenge. However, it is quite strange for you to assert that the Jewish history of such a place would ever be marginal to a Tablet audience. Maybe if you were writing for Palestine TV (that epitome of nonsense), or Al Jazeera, but not for a primarily — or even a secondarily — Jewish audience.

I was impressed by the citation of a commenter to the Birkat HaMazon, and that one of the blessings was inserted in memory of Bethar — very, very long ago, long before there were Palestinian Arabs and certainly long before there were Muslims anywhere. It is noted in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot, folio 48b, “The benediction [in the birkat hamazon] ‘Who is good and bestows good’5 was instituted in Jabneh with reference to those who were slain in
Bethar. For R. Mattena said: On the day on which permission was given to
bury those slain in Bethar,6 “.

herbcaen says:

The only walls that Michael Sfard would approve of are the walls of the Warsaw and Lodz ghetto. His goal is to make the land of Israel Judenrein

Mutzka says:

Who is the editor of the Tablet? The mouthpiece of the PA? I’ve yet to see someone outside the PA claim that the Palestinians were around millenia ago, that they invented terrace agriculture (nope, the Babylonian did that long before Islam was even dreamed of), or that “Battir” was anything else but the formerly Jewish Beitar. From now on, I’ll read the Tablet the same way I read the Guardian: as a press organ of the enemy.

Mutzka says:

No James, you aren’t. I nearly had conniption reading that PA worthy propaganda.

Michael Stein says:

Who?

herbcaen says:

Michael Sfart

Michael Stein says:

Well, I got that much. It would help to know who he is and why you don’t like him.

herbcaen says:

Michael Sfart is an anti-Israel activist who tries to use the courts to restore Jerusalem to its pre-1967 status

Monika says:

To learn more about farming business visit ROYSFARM

4000 year old farming heritage ? Are you saying that the Arabs were here 4000 years ago farming the land ? I dont think so. Enough with the leftist thoughts that try to sow the lie that “Palestinians” were here before the Jews. The Jews have always claimed a 3000 year heritage in Canaan and here you are trying to push an older “Palestinian” farming heritage.

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Land for Peace in the Battle Over Millennia-Old Palestinian Farming Terraces

In the village of Battir, green ideals and cultural heritage override detailed plans for Israel’s separation wall