UK & World News

  • 29 January 2014, 0:06

Battir Threatened By Israeli Separation Wall

The future of a potential world heritage site hangs in the balance ahead of a court judgement on an extension of Israel's controversial separation wall.

A plan to extend the path of the barrier through the ancient West Bank village of Battir has been appealed at the Israeli Supreme Court for Justice.

A ruling is expected on Wednesday morning.

Battir, which straddles a valley in the Bethlehem hills, just miles from Jerusalem, is famed for its unique terraced hills which have been built by hand over millennia.

The fertile lands of the Palestinian village are filled with vegetables, fruit crops and olive groves, all fed by natural spring water which flows through Roman irrigation systems, built more than 2,000 years ago.

However, plans put forward by Israel's Defence Ministry to extend the separation barrier - which in some areas nearby is an eight metre concrete wall - would divide the village off from around 35% of its ancestral land.

The area under threat lies on the opposite side of the valley, across the 1949 armistice line which separates Israel from the West Bank, known as the "green line".

Residents of Battir were guaranteed continued access to the land by the Israeli state after the 1948 war, in return for a pledge that the railway which runs along the line would not be vandalised.

The creation of the wall along the proposed course would end that agreement, and cut the land off both from the water that irrigates it, and the residents of Battir who tend to it.

Israel claims the wall is necessary for security, and says it has prevented suicide attacks in the country.

But many in the international community, as well as the Palestinians, see it as a means of appropriating land beyond Israel's pre-1967 borders.

Akram Badir, the head of Battir Village Council, said claims the routing of the wall through Battir was necessary for security were misplaced.

"This village is living in peace. Destroying this site and taking off nearly 40% of the land of Battir means destroying the peace situation as well as the landscape," he said.

Over the last few years, new Israeli settlements, deemed illegal under international law, have been constructed on hills overlooking the village.

The construction of the separation barrier is also coming closer.

It is already at the gates of the nearby village of Walaja, which has led to a gathering of momentum in the battle to protect Battir.

But there has been some annoyance among residents of the village that more has not been done by the Palestinian Authority to assist them in their bid to protect the land.

As a member of Unesco, the Palestinian Authority has the ability to make an emergency application to the UN body to grant Battir world heritage site status.

Given that Battir has already been awarded a prize by Unesco identifying it as a place of unique importance, there is thought to be a good chance such an application would be swift and successful.

World heritage site status would almost certainly rule out the possibility of Israel's barrier being routed through the village's land.

Yet those involved in the lobbying effort to the Palestinian Authority say the application process has been held back for fear of disrupting peace negotiations with Israel.

In the meantime, the village has won support from an unlikely quarter - the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority.

The body has backed the appeal against the Defence Ministry's planned routing of the barrier - the first time one arm of the Israeli state has publicly opposed another on this matter.

At earlier court hearings Israel's Defence Ministry insisted residents of Battir would still be able to access the land through special security gates, but Gidon Bromberg, an Israeli spokesman for Friends of the Earth Middle East, said such a plan risked the cultural and environmental importance of the land.

He said: "This site is so unique that we must protect it, not just for Israelis and Palestinians, but for humankind as a whole. We can meet the legitimate security concerns by alternative means."

Construction of Israel's separation barrier, which Palestinians call the "apartheid wall", began in 2002 in the midst of a wave of suicide bombings inside Israel during the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada.

As of July 2012 Israel had completed construction of 62% of the planned 439-miles of separation barrier, and 85% of the route is beyond the "green line" inside the West Bank.

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