Shatha Yaish, AFP
Last updated: 28 January, 2014

Israel barrier threatens to split West Bank villages

Israel’s separation barrier could soon destroy the livelihoods and redraw the demographics of two Palestinian villages south of Jerusalem, locals say, should an imminent court ruling approve its planned route.

Two separate cases against the West Bank barrier are to be heard by Israel’s highest court on Wednesday morning to decide whether to approve the defence ministry’s planned route or to heed a flurry of appeals by locals and activists who have requested it be changed.

If approved, the barrier — in parts an eight-metre-high (25-foot) concrete wall — could cut through ancient irrigation systems relied upon by the West Bank village of Battir, separate residents of nearby Beit Jala from their olive groves and divide a local Christian community.

The ministry insists the barrier, whose construction began in 2002 during the bloody second Palestinian intifada (uprising) and which now snakes some 440 kilometres through the West Bank, is essential for Israeli security.

But in Battir, which straddles the 1949 Green Line south of Jerusalem, the barrier threatens the livelihoods of a 5,000-strong Palestinian community that depends on a Roman-era irrigation system, residents say.

The ancient system channels water from natural springs down stone terraces and through sluice gates to water villagers’ orchards and gardens.

“The building of the wall will destroy parts of the water system that has been here for 2,500 years, including the stone channels that lead to the village,” said Akram Badr, head of Battir village council.

Battir’s produce is a key source of income for the village, as is the tourism generated by the Roman irrigation system itself, a proposed UNESCO world heritage site that attracts Holy Land visitors and historians.

“The wall’s route will destroy the area and wreck an important historical site that still serves a crucial practical purpose for the people of Battir,” said Friends of the Earth Middle East’s Nader al-Khatib, warning it would inevitably lead to a loss of tourism.

Only 15 percent of the separation barrier is built along the Green Line, which is recognised by the international community as the border of Israel proper, according to figures from the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, with most of it jutting into the occupied West Bank.

If completed as planned, the barrier will isolate 9.4 percent of the land in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the agency says.

Two-thirds of Battir lies in Palestinian territory with the other third in Israel.

The villagers’ case has won the support of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which has said that building the barrier there would cause irreversible damage to the terraces.

But the defence ministry denies it would have a significant effect on the irrigation system.

“The ministry … values the protection of both human life and the environment… However, (it) is committed first and foremost to maintaining the safety and security of the citizens of Israel,” it said in a statement.

“The route was relocated to an area where the impact on the terraces and the view will be most limited,” it said, adding that “only the first row of (water) terraces will be partially affected.”

Splitting monks from nuns

A few kilometres (miles) down the road, the barrier threatens to separate Christian and Muslim residents of the town of Beit Jala from their olive groves and divide the Christian community.

A Supreme Court ruling on that section of the barrier is likely to be handed down on Wednesday.

The barrier would split the Roman Catholic Salesian order by leaving the monastery on the Israeli side and the convent in Palestinian territory. The order runs the Cremisan valley’s famous vineyards, which provide wine to churches throughout the Holy Land.

“The wall endangers all the people of Beit Jala, Christians and Muslims alike,” says Beit Jala’s parish priest Father Ibrahim al-Shamali who has been holding weekly protest masses.

“It will affect Christians more because 99 percent of the land there belongs to some 58 Christian families… This could push the community to leave, because after losing their land they’ll have nothing to stay for.”

The defence ministry told AFP it had “taken into account all the requests of the different parties, especially the monastery,” in planning the route, without elaborating.

Meanwhile, a group of Catholic bishops said plans to build the barrier in the Cremisan Valley “should be abandoned” saying its route there “deviates sharply from the Green Line.”

“Our deep concern.. is that this planned security wall is more about consolidating the settlement areas and permanently choking off Bethlehem from Jerusalem,” said the group, which represents 12 nations.