For the last year, the terraced landscape of Battir, a small Palestinian village near Bethlehem, has been at the center of an unprecedented Israeli High Court debate. Similar to previous cases concerning the Separation Barrier, the residents of a Palestinian village petitioned here against the Israeli Ministry of Defense’s intentions to build the barrier in a way that would cut them off from vital sources of livelihood. EcoPeace / Friends of the Earth Middle East, however, petitioned the High Court on broader grounds of environmental and cultural heritage.
The Battir landscape is breathtakingly beautiful. Characterized by extensive hand-built terracing and ancient irrigation systems, the area is considered in World Heritage terms as an organically evolved landscape. Within the area are kilometers of dry-stone walls, built to hold the shallow soils on steep, stony slopes. This visually spectacular landscape also contains a prehistoric hilltop, fortifications from the Bar Kochba revolt, and ancient graves. Canals contemporary with the fields, wind between them and water the fields from ancient springs; among the fields and terraces are stone-houses, watchtowers, clearance cairns (rujoum) and steps and ramps between the terraces. Overall, these elements form a cultural landscape of considerable scientific interest and beauty. Moreover, according to leading Israeli experts these elements have been preserved in a way that maintained the site’s totality, authenticity and integrity, therefore further increasing its value as a potential World Heritage site.
The segment of the Barrier that is planned in this area and as currently proposed by the Army, a 3.5 meters high, bolstered metal fence with patrol roads would affect Battir’s land, its heritage, its ancient human-made landscape. Not only would terraces need to be removed, the integrity and completeness of the site would be compromised leading to the irreversible loss of heritage site important to both Palestinians and Israelis and no less to the world over.
As a result of the petition submitted by FoEME, the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority, one of the respondents in the case, joined the objection and stated that “the building of the fence as currently proposed by the respondents… does not adequately balance, as required, the range of conflicting interests, and does not adequately address the wide and irreversible damage that will be caused to the natural, landscape, and heritage values that exist in the area”. This is the first time an Israeli governmental agency has objected to the very existence of the Separation Barrier as a physical barrier. Instead the Nature and Parks Authority commissioned their own security opinion that details how security interests can be maintained by alternative means, mostly electronic, combining sensors and cameras.
Such an endorsement by the Nature and Parks Authority was one of the main factors that convinced the High Court, in May 2013, to issue an interim injunction to stop the separation barrier from proceeding to be built. The Court placed the onus on the Military to show why the Barrier should be built in this current planned form that would irreversibly damage a cultural heritage site of global importance. The army in its latest response to the High Court remains determined to build the physical barrier as planned. If built, such a barrier will draw heavy condemnation from the international community as a breach of Israel’s obligation to the World Heritage Convention. Considering the alternatives proposed by the Nature and Parks Authority, this political minefield can and should be avoided.
The High Court will soon convene for a final hearing on the issue and decide upon the future of the Battir terraced landscape. (The hearing schedule for Monday has been postponed due to inclement weather.)