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
Yuval Peled, director of planning at the INPA, said he headed a study on cultural landscapes in Israel, completed two years ago. “Our perspective on the works of man in nature is changing,” he said. In past projects, including the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv railway extension, “we could have done better. But now we are in a situation where we understand more.”
Asked about other cases, like Walajeh, Peled said, “In Walajeh, we were alone with the Ministry of Defense. But in Battir, there were many more people involved. We could influence more.”
This affidavit was one of four expert opinions that contended the fence would decimate the unique farming system. Alongside the legal struggle, FoEME brought Israelis to hike in the forested hills around Battir and to enjoy an afternoon concert by Israeli singer Achinoam Nini in view of the terraces. Ultimately, the court ruled in early May that the defense ministry must explain “why should the route of the Separation Barrier in the Battir village area not be nullified or changed, and alternately why should the barrier not be reconfigured.”
Bromberg sees the story of Battir as an unadulterated success. “It’s a precedent that security doesn’t automatically trump,” he said, speaking of the court’s consideration. “The court is saying security issues must be considered but must balance with other considerations.”
Mayor Bader, too, said he felt an enormous sense of relief. “Now I feel better because they avoid the idea to make a closure for our lands and destroy this heritage site,” he said. “Also we have more supporters from both sides, from the Israelis, Palestinians, and all over the world.”
But other Palestinian environmentalists had mixed feelings. In the Bethlehem offices of the Applied Research Institute–Jerusalem, researcher Jane Hilal said the case of Battir was problematic. About 170 villages have been compromised by the barrier, she said. In the northern West Bank, the barrier cuts roughly through one forest and leaves another forest entirely in Israeli hands. A real victory would be to remove the wall altogether. “It’s not a success story,” Hilal said. “If they want to not destroy the terraces, they will destroy other people’s land.”
Sfard, who also litigated the Bil’in case, said he sued the state in 2003 and claimed the whole barrier was illegal. The court ruled that any objections would have to be on a case-by-case basis, he said. “There were about 100 cases on different segments of the barrier,” he said. “There were about six or seven victories. But in general, the route of barrier has changed considerably from a route that should have encircled 20 percent of the West Bank to a route that today encircles 8.5 percent.”
Sfard said he doubted he could revisit older cases in court and move the barrier in the name of environmental and cultural heritage now. In Walajeh, Ahmad Shehadeh, who coordinates a local theater, said that “the wall is making us feel like we are animals living in a zoo.” But, he said, he had no hard feelings for Battir’s residents. “These are my people there, my friends and my brothers,” he said.
For now in Battir the feeling is euphoria. The Defense Ministry has until July 2 to submit a new idea for securing the border that will not destroy Battir. Residents are getting ready for the annual summer eggplant festival. The Palestinian Authority has placed Battir on a tentative list seeking UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Bromberg says that the Israelis on the other side of the border, where the terraces continue, are considering submitting a joint request to the U.N. body, turning a thorny dispute into a platform for cooperation.
Thinking about the rare success in Battir, Bromberg said other failed attempts to protect land from the barrier are “extraordinarily tragic. It’s a failure of those responsible for nature protection not to have raised their voices earlier, but thank goodness they did it now. We could have lost Battir.”
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Can David Stav, who is in line for the post, return it to the stature it held before his immediate predecessors?