Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Apartheid Wall threatens 2000 years of agriculture in Battir

Juicebox Gallery

By John Space - February 11, 2013
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Life under Occupation]
Tags: [Apartheid Wall] [Battir] [agricultural terraces] [UNESCO World Heritage Site]

Photos by Lazar Simeonov.

The unique system of terraced agriculture practiced in Battir has continued without stop throughout wars dating back from the eras of the Romans to the Mamluks to the Ottomans. It survived the devastation of Israel's 1948 land grab, the 1967 war and two intifadas. 

But now Israel plans to build its Apartheid Wall directly through the terraces, destroying not just an agricultural landmark, but also the way of life the people of Battir have held on to for over 2000 years.

"If they build the wall or they excavate, how many of these terraces will be destroyed?" wondered Battir resident Hassan Muamer. "If they bring the bulldozers, it will destroy everything, and we will never have the chance to get it back."

The people of Battir have pursued a variety of methods in their struggle to stop the wall, including fighting Israel in court and advocating to have Battir declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

The village will be considered for UNESCO status in June, and on December 12 of last year, the Israeli High Court declared that the Israeli army must submit alternative plans for the construction of the wall within 90 days. But the army could still decide to build along the planned route, and there's no guarantee that even if it became a UNESCO site Israel would be deterred from building the wall.

Israel's railroad and the excuse of security

The village of Battir lies directly next to the Israeli-controlled Hijaz Railway, built during the Ottoman period to connect Jerusalem to the Mediterranean coast. Although the village itself is Area C, much of Battir's farmland is located on the far side of the tracks, inside the Green Line. 

If they build the wall or excavate, how many of these terraces will be destroyed? If they bring the bulldozers it will destroy everything, and we will never have the chance to get it back

Under the terms of the 1949 Rhodes Armistice Agreements, Israel is obligated to allow residents of Battir to access their farmland, provided that the people of Battir do not attempt to damage the railway. The people of Battir have honored this agreement, but Israel now plans to break it by building the wall, which will separate Battir from almost all of its agricultural land.

Eleyain Shami of Battir's village council said the residents of Battir expected Israel to continue to honor the terms of the agreement, as they had done since 1949.

"We respected this rule, so we were shocked," he said. "They didn't care about international law or any agreement."

Muamer, who went to primary school in the schoolhouse directly next to the railway, said the people of Battir learn as children that they must respect the Rhodes Agreements so that Israel will remain obligated to keep their end of the bargain.

"We learned if we have any problems with the train while it is passing, we would immediately lose our school, and afterward we would lose our land," he said. "After the first Intifada until now, I can assure you nothing happened (to the train.)

"Nonetheless, Israel has suddenly decided that the wall is necessary to protect the railway.

"As always with Israel, the only excuse is it's a security issue," Muamer said. "But it's been secure since 1967. What's changed?"

The struggle for Battir 

Due to the one-of-a-kind terraced agriculture, even some factions within the Israeli government oppose construction of the wall through Battir. Israel's Nature and Parks Authority recommended to the High Court that the wall be rerouted in order to avoid damaging the historic site.

The people of Battir are involved in a drawn-out legal process with Israel's High Court to block construction of the wall. But even with the support of the Nature and Parks Authority, many in Battir believe the court will not rule in favor of the people of Battir.

"We are still dealing with an Israeli court that could decide whatever is good for them," said village council member Hussein Butmeh. "We are not putting our hope in the court, but in the UNESCO.

The village council has been petitioning to have Battir named a UNESCO World Heritage site for five years, and has been petitioning the Israeli court for eight. The council believes that being added to the UNESCO list will cause the international community to pressure Israel not to build the wall, and the people of Battir see the UNESCO application as a crucial part of the struggle to keep their land. 

"What we're trying to achieve with this UNESCO thing is the control of this land," Muamer said. "You must find a way to protect your land, protect your way of living. This is the main point."

The Israeli government is also facing pressure from the nearby settlement of Beitar Illit to select a different route for the wall, but Battir's village council does not see the settlers as allies.

"They don't want to build the wall here because it will stop expansion of the settlement," Shami said. "They are worse even than the Israeli government. With their long term plans they want to confiscate all the land in the West Bank."

Although the people of Battir do not agree with the motives of the settlers, they have the same goal, at least in the short term: stop construction of the wall. If the wall is built, it will signal a death knell for the village of Battir, Butmeh said.

"For the people of Battir, we are fighting for our existence on this land," he said. "Our first mission is to keep the continuity of this land as one body. If it is cut, it will die like a human being."

Shami said the people of Battir remain convinced they will prevail in their struggle, a belief backed up by the fact the Israeli government has so far been unable to follow through with its plans.

"Our duty, since we start our struggle eight years ago, is to keep our hope," he said. "Because as soon as we lose our hope, maybe they will build the wall." 

Despite the overwhelming military might of the Israeli army, the people of Battir will not be intimidated and will not abandon their struggle."

With its power, (Israel) can do whatever it wants," Shami said. "Even if they take this land by force, we will not surrender. We will keep this land as Battir, as part of Palestine, no matter what they are going to do."

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