Netanyahu asks us to believe that this demand does not stem from concern for the interests of the settlers, has nothing to do with economic considerations and is in no way connected to political constraints. His one and only concern is for Israel’s security and, as we know, he does not make concessions on Israel’s security. Right? Not exactly. If this is true, how does one explain the multiple breaches in the separation fence, or as it’s officially named, the “security fence?”
How is it possible that 12 years after the government approved the erection of the fence, the West Bank settlement blocs — Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel-Kdumim — are still mostly on the eastern side of the obstacle? If, indeed, as the official site of the Defense Ministry claims, the fence is “designed to reduce the capability of terrorists to infiltrate from the Palestinian Authority into Israel’s area,” how does one explain that about one-third of the planned outline of the fence is still being breached?
If the intention had indeed been only to prevent the infiltration of terrorists into “Israel’s area,” meaning the area west of the Green Line under Israeli sovereignty, the whole fence would already have been up. But the completion of the fence is being delayed by petitions that stem from the government’s insistence on including settlements on the western side of the fence, instead of adhering to the 1967 border.
The planned 815-kilometer (506-mile) course of the fence (including the portion around Jerusalem) is almost three times as long as than the Green Line. It follows, then, that this obstacle is designed to annex territories outside Israel’s sovereign area. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the defense needs of the residents of the State of Israel.
Like the new tenders for construction in the West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem, the fence is part of a policy of establishing realities on the ground. These facts blur the ’67 lines — the course that was designed to serve as the basis for the permanent border between Israel and the Palestine. This is the line identified by US President Barack Obama as the platform for a permanent arrangement between Israel and Palestine (with agreed-upon land swaps).
While the US State Department is putting the finishing touches on the document of principles that is supposed to breathe life into the Green Line, a crucial hearing will be held Jan. 29 at Israel’s Supreme Court in a case that illustrates how Israel wishes to use the fence to change the situation.
This “defense-related” construction is connected to a riveting political-archeological-environmental issue. The High Court justices will be hearing a petition brought by the Friends of the Earth organization and the residents of the West Bank village of Battir against the erection of the fence in the heart of the largest and oldest terrace area conserved in the Judean mountains. The petitioners claim the fence will damage the traditional irrigation system, which has served the village farmers since the days of the First Temple. This system is considered a unique relic of ancient agriculture. The planned course of the fence is also supposed to separate the residents from their lands, which stretch out over some 3,000 dunams (740 acres).
The petitioners presented an alternative course west of the planned route that would minimize, they claim, the damage to the scenery and to the traditional farming culture. The Ministry of Defense rejected the proposal and emphasized, “The fence near the village of Battir is the last remaining breach in the defense of the residents of Jerusalem.” The Ministry of Defense claims that its course takes into account the need to protect the rail link between Jerusalem and central Israel. But anyone driving along Route 1 between the capital and Tel Aviv can see the energetic work being conducted on a new rail line designed to cut the travel time between the two cities.
Michael Sfard, the lawyer representing Friends of the Earth, noted in the petition that the Ministry of Defense's course threatens “to destroy a uniquely sensitive site which has been in existence for thousands of years, and all in order to serve a rail line that is about to go out of service within a few years.”
A train track running along the 1949 armistice line is seen near terraced agricultural fields in Battir village, south of Jerusalem, Dec. 12, 2012. AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS -
During one of the court sessions, the judges recommended that the Ministry of Defense reconsider its position. Before the justices is a surprising submission by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which reversed its stance and turned from defendant to petitioner. The authority warns that the fence will damage the ancient landscape, cut the farmers off from their lands and result in the destruction of an ancient culture. This is the first time that a statutory body whose heads are appointed by the government has challenged the defense authorities.
It’s worth noting that the authority is not led by a bunch of left-wingers. The director-general, Shaul Goldstein, served in the past as the head the settlement Gush Etzion's regional council. The head of the authority’s Jerusalem district is Evyatar Cohen, a resident of the settlement of Ofra and also a leading member of the right-wing El’ad organization, which promotes Jewish control over the Holy Basin in East Jerusalem.
Gideon Bromberg, director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, told Al-Monitor this week, “No one argues over the need to protect the citizens of Israel, but the IDF is dragging Israel into the destruction of a world heritage site, when there’s an alternative solution which balances security needs with environmental preservation needs.” Bromberg has a hard time understanding the insistence of the Ministry of Defense on a course that will cause irreversible damage to a unique 4,000-year-old cultural heritage site that has been preserved in just one area of the Middle East.
Palestinian children swim in the ancient spring in the West Bank village of Battir, which Unesco is poised to recognise as a world heritage site. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
It’s unclear how the ministry’s stance can be reconciled with the statement appearing on the website of the “seam zone” directorate, according to which the principles of charting the fence include “consideration for the texture of the population’s life, the affinities of the Palestinian and Israeli populations … [and] the preservation of landscape and nature.”
In a detailed response presented to the court, the head of the IDF’s Central Command, Gen. Nitzan Alon, refused to recognize the existence of security alternatives to the course charted by the military or to explain why he rules them out. Perhaps the IDF is gambling on the Supreme Court’s penchant for giving in to the sacred cow of “defense needs.”
If the judges do not depart from their habits and approve the current course of the fence, the Palestinian Authority is expected to ask UNESCO to declare the ancient terraces a World Heritage Site under the organization’s control and under the supervision of UN's new member, Palestine, much to Israel’s chagrin.
The case of Battir might sound the opening gong for a boxing match between Israel and the Palestinians on the day following the rejection of the security arrangements in the US document of principles. In this arena — the arena of international organizations — no one stands at attention upon hearing the words “Israel’s defense needs.”
Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.
Remarkably, both the Guardian and The Washington Post recently published articles outlining the damage the wall would cause to Battir’s distinctive social and ecological system, its Roman-era terraces, water system and agriculture, and the people who have cared for them for innumerable generations. These articles follow determined efforts by the village’s inhabitants, and local organizations to raise the alarm over this latest plan for vandalism by the Israeli occupation (“West Bank barrier plan threatens ancient farming landscape,” The Washington Post, 23 December 2012; “Israeli separation barrier threatens Battir’s ancient terraces,” the Guardian, 11 December 2012).
Battir happens to be my birthplace as well as the site of my childhood memories. At my old age I forgot much of my past experience, having had the chance to travel and live for extended periods abroad, but I’ve forgotten nothing of my early years in Battir, where I attended primary school, experienced unparalleled community life, suffered severe hardships, was forced to temporarily escape with the rest of the village folks in the 1948 war and to finally be separated from my home in the 1967 War.
Most history books describe the village situated in a few miles southwest of Jerusalem, as the site of the final defeat of the Jewish Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans (132-136 CE) and that it was inhabited during the Byzantine and the Islamic periods.
The village is built on two high mountain slopes that face each other at an angle. The lower part of both slopes is made up of beautifully terraced orchards that village people used over the centuries for planting all kinds of vegetables where irrigation from the village spring was possible, or summer fruit trees that did not need irrigation.
Out of a large assortment of vegetables the “Battiri eggplant” has been distinguished worldwide for its taste and quality, and throughout Palestine and Jordan its name is known. In 2011, Battir won the 2011 Melina Mercouri Prize from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, for its “cultural landscape.”
The village used to supply the market in Jerusalem with large amounts of special kinds of grapes, olives, figs, apples, apricots, pears and peaches, as well as varied seasonal vegetables all year round. Village women walked to the market in the Old City of Jerusalem for hours with large baskets on their heads to sell their produce. Other means such as mules and donkeys were used to transport the goods when such animals were available.
One hilltop overlooking most of the village houses is referred to in history books as “Khirbet al-Yahoud,” the Jewish Ruins. It is also recognized as such by the villagers. There are no visible ruins on the hill that is mostly planted by olive and other summer trees. Often people dug for and found old coins that brought them handsome return at antique dealers in Jerusalem.
The village slopes face west, and are separated from the opposing mountain slopes by the valley in which the Palestine railway connecting Jerusalem to the coast and further to Egypt via Sinai was built. Trains stopped at the Battir railway station to collect or discharge passengers and to refill the steam locomotives with water. The station was a very lively site surrounded by greenery and fruit trees. It was also bustling with life and activity, with the school village nearby and the few buildings housing station offices and operations personnel.
That chapter of the village history was seriously interrupted when the ethnic cleansing of Palestine began in 1947. The railway stopped operating and the Battir station was destroyed. The village itself was not occupied but became uninhabitable while under constant Jewish fire from the opposing occupied hills. When the 1949 truce was agreed Battir was safely on the Arab side, including the railway section crossing the village valley.
As the armistice lines were delineated there was a trick, for which Battir is paying the heavy price 65 years later.
At the time, and because most of the Palestine railway from Jerusalem to the coast was under Israel’s control, except for the Battir sector, a proviso was included in the Jordan-Israel armistice agreement allowing Israel to extend the armistice line 200 yards east, within unoccupied village land, to run parallel to the railway line, on the grounds that that was necessary to provide security protection for the railway which Israel intended to use.
The village inhabitants were assured that they would not be separated from their farming land and houses including the school which fell behind the barbed wire on the Israeli side. That overlapping worked well — with some tragic incidents — until 1967 when the entire West Bank was occupied. The barbed wire, which was built across the village in 1949, did not last long and soon disappeared. The Israelis never restored it.
Apparently it did not disappear as an established practical fact, and the Israelis are now using it as grounds for building the separation wall. If the wall plan continues, it will destroy the village as many world reports warn. It will destroy the physical as well as the human character of a community that lived in peace and harmony for centuries.
As a native of that great village, who only visited once for a few days since 1966, I feel deep pain at the ongoing devastation. But as one who lived the deeper pain of seeing the entire history of Palestine destroyed, as one who experienced the massive international injustice that befell the Palestinian people, and as one who witnesses the hypocrisy and the silence of the civilized world in front of an ongoing Israeli aggression, I see the Battir story as a detail. Battir is a victim of this monstrous atrocity but by no means the only victim.
The wall is illegal and wrong, not only when it divides and destroys Battir. Battir, if it suffers this terrible fate, will be only the latest of a long line of villages including Bilin,Nilin and Nabi Saleh, where Palestinians are struggling to keep hold of their land.
The occupation is wrong too. The eradication of the Palestinian people is wrong and so is the colonization of the Palestinian and the other Arab lands. There are more wrongs than the wall. We must be constantly reminded that we should see the forest not just the tree, even when the tree is one that we have grown up with and love.
Hasan Abu Nimah is a former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This essay first appeared in The Jordan Times and is republished with the author’s permission.