Israeli barrier threatens unique Palestinian village locals

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Palestinians living in the West Bank’s Batir village say Israel’s plan to construct its security barrier across its lands threatens the ancient system of agriculture traditionally practiced by the farmers of the area.

The route of the barrier is still to be finalized, but if it is built along the valley floor, parallel to the railway as villagers fear, it will cut off Batir village from much of its agricultural land, and villagers say it will destroy a way of life they have lived for millennia.

For more than 2000 years, the village has farmed using a traditional irrigation system that villagers fear will be destroyed if the barrier is built. They say they will lose their income and lands forever.

“It is a tragedy for all farmers and all the residents of Batir village. Most of the residents are farmers and depend on these green lands. They depend on farming the Batir eggplant which is famous in the Palestinian lands. Also we have other vegetables such as beans, cauliflower, and pepper," Farmer Maher al-Harbouq said.

It is an unprecedented case in the building of the barrier since 30 percent of Batir’s lands, about 740 acres, are on the Israeli side of the Green line, the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank. Batir’s inhabitants were the only Palestinians allowed to cross the Green Line and cultivate their land in Israel after the 1948 war.

In 1949 Armistice Agreements mentioned the oral agreement between village leaders and Israel allowing the villagers to farm their land across the Green line in return for the safe passage of the railway running from Jerusalem along the valley floor on parts of village land. If the barrier is built along the line, it will separate villagers from their lands.

The Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement to Reuters television that the routing of the barrier was based on security and hoped the damage to the area would be minimal. It promised that the farmers will continue to have access to their lands through gates built into the barrier.

But the Israel Nature and Parks Authority is also against a physical barrier in Batir, saying the area needs to remain open access.

“Israel have the right to defend itself. Israel have the right to defend itself from suicide bombers. We think we can do it in electronic devices, closed circuit cameras, radars, not in a physical barrier, not a fence, not a wall, nothing. We need it open for the public, we need it open for the nature,” CEO of the authority Shaul Goldstein told Reuters Television.

Goldstein says the area around Batir provides an ecological corridor between climate zones for many animals, and that, along with the landscape, would be destroyed by a concrete barrier.

“Two main points; the first one is the ecological corridor, this area provides many animals a corridor between some climate areas, with the wall or fence doesn’t matter, they will be stopped and blocked. Second one, the main issue in Batir is the landscape, this will destruct (destroy) the beautiful landscape that we have there,” he said.

The unique and picturesque village landscape on a hillside south of Jerusalem has evolved because of the method of irrigation used by villagers. The farmers’ lands are arranged in traditional terraces, with water from seven natural springs diverted across the slopes through a system of sluices and shared between all the plots.

“The damage that will happen if the wall is built will never be solved. There will be an environmental damage. There will be increase in rats and harmful animals. The animals who are living in this area will not be able to move around, such as gazelles,” Engineer Raed Samara, says.

The Palestinian Authority asked UNESCO in May to make Batir a World Heritage site to protect its ancient terraces and prevent the construction of the barrier.

“We hope that UNESCO which gave Batir the first award for protecting the environment, we hope this award will help to stop building the wall and will return life to Batir,” Samara said.

Farmer Muhammad Hassan says the barrier will put an end to the traditional agriculture and landscape of the village.

“It will affect us. If only you knew how much it will destroy our lives and land. We do not know how we will live afterwards. Our life is attached to this land; it is the source of our honour. We will never give it away no matter what happens,” said Hassan.

Since 2005 the villagers have been in a legal battle against the plan and they have offered alternative routes. They have petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice through Israeli environmental organizations, Friends of the Earth of Middle East and Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority.

The court is yet to rule on the petition.

Israel says the barrier, a mix of electronic fences and walls that encroaches on West Bank territory, is meant to keep suicide bombers out of its cities.

Palestinians call the barrier -- whose course encompasses Israeli settlements in the West Bank -- a disguised move to annex or fragment territory Palestinians seek for a viable state.

The International Court of Justice declared the planned 700-km (440-mile) barrier, more than 60 percent of which is completed, illegal, but Israel has ignored the non-binding ruling.
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