Mahmoud Illean/AP
People run past the separation wall during the West Bank’s first marathon in Bethlehem, April 21, 2013.

In Israel, a modern wall is halted by ancient terraces

Israel’s high court has issued an injunction against extending the separation barrier through the Palestinian village of Batir, famed for its 2,500-year-old terraces and aqueducts.

After scarring the ancient landscapes of Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the name of security, Israel’s separation barrier had been slated to carve through this Palestinian village’s 2,500-year old farm terraces and aqueducts.

But for the first time in years, Israel’s high court has given Batir and its 6,000 residents – famed for its annual yield of aubergines – reason to hope that a way of life preserved through centuries won’t be destroyed.

Earlier this month Israel’s top justices issued a rare injunction against construction of the barrier, putting the onus on security authorities to demonstrate that it won’t risk Batir’s cultural and environmental heritage.

"Now I feel better because they avoid the idea [that would force] closure for our lands and destroy this heritage site," says Batir council head Akram Bader, standing alongside a gurgling spring which reputedly supplied water to Jerusalem during the era of the Roman empire.  "Also, we have more supporters from both sides, from the Israeli, Palestinian, and all over the world." 

Indeed, the case of Batir is even more remarkable because, for the first time, an Israeli government agency came to the defense of the Palestinians affected by the barrier. A 13-page position paper by the Nature and Parks Authority declared that Batir actually represents a living vestige of a shared history dating back to the period of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

The authority – which flip-flopped its original position from 2005 when the barrier route through Batir was first proposed – suggested the entire project should be stopped and rethought because it represented a response to a previous war rather than the future. The agricultural terraces of the Palestinian villages are among the most ancient in the world and are part of Jewish heritage because it is "a sign of the people of Israel in the Land of Israel." 

"It’s the first time that the government has spoken in two different voices,"  Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of the environmental group Friends of the Earth Middle East, told a group of reporters on a recent tour of the village. "We don’t want to see the demise of our neighbors' heritage because the bottom line is that it's something we all share."

Built into the terraced hillside, Batir’s vine-wrapped stone alleyways give way to the ancient Roman-era pools and tiny canals that run along pathways down to flood small earthen plots where eggplants grow. The villagers use stones to control the year-round flow of water, which is rotated daily among Batir’s eight main clans. The ancient method is far less lucrative that modern day drip agriculture, but villagers have stuck with tradition.  

"We have learned to appreciate this cultural landscape. We have an interest in preserving these locations," says Yuval Peled, director of the park’s authority planning and development department. "In every place in the world these places are subsidized so it continues to function as in the past."

A decade ago, at the height of the Palestinian uprising, Israel’s government started construction on a controversial matrix of fences, walls, and security roads to block suicide bombers in the West Bank from reaching Israeli cities.

After an initial spurt of building that separated many Palestinians from their farming lands, the project has been creeping forward because of a tide of legal challenges to the barrier, a lack of funds, and the decline of the Palestinian uprising several years later.  

As of October 2012, only two-thirds of the planned 483-mile barrier had been completed, according to the Applied Research Institute - Jerusalem, a Palestinian environmental non-profit. Only in a handful of locations has the court intervened and forced the IDF to re-route.

The tens of thousands of acres of ancient terraces straddling the Green Line border in the Jerusalem hills stand as one of many reminders that the West Bank as a separate entity is a recent creation of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Indeed, when Israeli and Jordanian military officers first drew the Green Line in 1949, Israel’s Moshe Dayan sought to preserve Batir’s unique tradition by leaving the frontier open and allowing Palestinian villagers access to lands within the newly formed Israeli state.

That 64-year-old recognition and the fact that villagers have refrained from attacks on Israelis despite Batir’s perch above a rail line connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv likely helped the village. Still, the case still isn’t settled.

Batir and the Parks Authority want an open frontier patrolled by cameras and sensors. The army, which still wants a physical barrier, has another six weeks come up with a proposal to submit for court review.

By then, it will be July and another eggplant season will be in full swing. An August aubergine festival is likely to be more celebratory than years past.

"Yes, we will have a festival," says council head Mr. Bader. "Look, they are preparing for the season."

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