In Israel, a modern wall is halted by ancient terraces

After scarring the ancient landscapes of Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the name of security, Israel’s separation barrier had been slated to carve through this Palestinian village’s 2,500-year old farm terraces and aqueducts.

But for the first time in years, Israel’s high court has given Batir and its 6,000 residents – famed for its annual yield of aubergines – reason to hope that a way of life preserved through centuries won’t be destroyed.

Earlier this month Israel’s top justices issued a rare injunction against construction of the barrier, putting the onus on security authorities to demonstrate that it won’t risk Batir’s cultural and environmental heritage.

“Now I feel better because they avoid the idea [that would force] closure for our lands and destroy this heritage site,” says Batir council head Akram Bader, standing alongside a gurgling spring which reputedly supplied water to Jerusalem during the era of the Roman empire.  “Also, we have more supporters from both sides, from the Israeli, Palestinian, and all over the world.” 

Indeed, the case of Batir is even more remarkable because, for the first time, an Israeli government agency came to the defense of the Palestinians affected by the barrier. A 13-page position paper by the Nature and Parks Authority declared that Batir actually represents a living vestige of a shared history dating back to the period of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

The authority – which flip-flopped its original position from 2005 when the barrier route through Batir was first proposed – suggested the entire project should be stopped and rethought because it represented a response to a previous war rather than the future. The agricultural terraces of the Palestinian villages are among the most ancient in the world and are part of Jewish heritage because it is “a sign of the people of Israel in the Land of Israel.” 

“It’s the first time that the government has spoken in two different voices,”  Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of the environmental group Friends of the Earth Middle East, told a group of reporters on a recent tour of the village. “We don’t want to see the demise of our neighbors’ heritage because the bottom line is that it’s something we all share.”

Built into the terraced hillside, Batir’s vine-wrapped stone alleyways give way to the ancient Roman-era pools and tiny canals that run along pathways down to flood small earthen plots where eggplants grow. The villagers use stones to control the year-round flow of water, which is rotated daily among Batir’s eight main clans. The ancient method is far less lucrative that modern day drip agriculture, but villagers have stuck with tradition.  

“We have learned to appreciate this cultural landscape. We have an interest in preserving these locations,” says Yuval Peled, director of the park’s authority planning and development department. “In every place in the world these places are subsidized so it continues to function as in the past.”

A decade ago, at the height of the Palestinian uprising, Israel’s government started construction on a controversial matrix of fences, walls, and security roads to block suicide bombers in the West Bank from reaching Israeli cities.

After an initial spurt of building that separated many Palestinians from their farming lands, the project has been creeping forward because of a tide of legal challenges to the barrier, a lack of funds, and the decline of the Palestinian uprising several years later.  

As of October 2012, only two-thirds of the planned 483-mile barrier had been completed, according to the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem, a Palestinian environmental non-profit. Only in a handful of locations has the court intervened and forced the IDF to re-route.

The tens of thousands of acres of ancient terraces straddling the Green Line border in the Jerusalem hills stand as one of many reminders that the West Bank as a separate entity is a recent creation of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Indeed, when Israeli and Jordanian military officers first drew the Green Line in 1949, Israel’sMoshe Dayan sought to preserve Batir’s unique tradition by leaving the frontier open and allowing Palestinian villagers access to lands within the newly formed Israeli state.

That 64-year-old recognition and the fact that villagers have refrained from attacks on Israelis despite Batir’s perch above a rail line connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv likely helped the village. Still, the case still isn’t settled.

Batir and the Parks Authority want an open frontier patrolled by cameras and sensors. The army, which still wants a physical barrier, has another six weeks come up with a proposal to submit for court review.

By then, it will be July and another eggplant season will be in full swing. An August aubergine festival is likely to be more celebratory than years past.

“Yes, we will have a festival,” says council head Mr. Bader. “Look, they are preparing for the season.”

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Abe Bird on 06/12/2013 - 05:30 am.

    The Palestinians strategy is victory on Israel and not a peace w

    Since Netanyahu’s ‘Bar-Ilan speech’ in 2009, Israel has repeatedly confirmed that she wants to discuss with the Palestinians on the “two states for two peoples” solution. The problem is that the Palestinians still refused to come to table. The Palestinian authority still talks only about “two states” because they do not want to recognize the right of Israel to be a Jewish state. They clearly know that direct talks with Israel will also force them to give up also on that issue. Netanyahu mentioned his intention to demand from the Palestinian a full recognition on Israel as a Jewish national state and that’s what scares them. Although Netanyahu stopped the construction in the settlements for 10 months at the request of Obama, the Arabs had not returned to their call. Then the Palestinians went through reality override path taking the UN General Assembly automatic Anti-Israel vote to achieve some irrelevant and unpractical declaration on Palestinian state. But still, Mahmoud Abbas afraid to talk directly with Israel, because he understands that he will have to give up something in return to concessions and gestures.

    Another problem is that President Mahmud Abbas had not been voted for office since his first legal term ended in 9 January 2009. Since then Abbas extending his own term claiming that the law gives him right to do so. Why the Israelis have to trust him while after signing some treaty with him, Abbas successors will deny all agreements that Abbas signed with Israel, on the claim that his action was not judicially and according to the PA’s constitution?

    After all what I’ve said, Abu Abbas put Pre-conditions to his return to talks in which he wants Israel affirmation to his 3 main demands to be agreed in talks:
    1) Israel should pull out of Judea and Samaria and return to pre-1967 border. Any changing of the line of the border will be raise later by Israel on the principle of “land for land”, without any warranties or guarantees that the Arabs would have to accept Israel’s demands/offers.
    2) Israel should agree to accept the Arabs demand for the “Right of return” of the descendants of Arab refugees in 1948. Arabs claim to have about 5 millions that entitled to enter Israel and become citizens. So do the math.
    3) The Palestinians want to be sure that Israel won’t demand from them to recognize Israel as the “Jewish state”, means the state of the Jewish people. Don’t mix it with the current situation that the Palestinians sometimes say that Israel practically is de-facto Jewish. It doesn’t represents their acceptance of Israel as being a Jewish but a statement of current fact. The Palestinians don’t want to accept the RIGHT of Israel to be a Jewish state, because that will fail their strategy to flood Israel with the vast numbers of ‘descendants of refugees’ to create majority inside Israel and canceling/ruining the Jewish state.

    Hence the political route is jammed by Palestinians’ fault.

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