Ecology-minded Palestinian village fights plans for separation fence (HAŽARETZ NEWS) By Nir Hasson 04/20/12)
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Most of the world manages with a seven-day week, but the Palestinian
village of Batir lives on an eight-day cycle. The reason is a
sophisticated system of allocating water from the village´s wells
among the eight large families of the village southeast of Jerusalem.
The system, which has lasted hundreds of years, allows each family to
use the common water for one day. Therefore, instead of Sunday,
Monday or Tuesday, the village elders call the days Moamar, Awaina or
Bader, after the names of the families. Another system that helps in
the hotter days allows a family to set a thorny branch in the
reservoir, allowing that family to use the water until it reaches a
certain point on the branch.
The traditional systems are the basis for the terrace agriculture,
one of the oldest farming methods known to mankind, that surround the
village, a candidate to be added to UNESCO´s World Heritage site
list. But this fragile and sophisticated system is now threatened by
the separation wall which is planned to cut in half the agricultural
lands of the village, and put an end to the tradition and landscape.
"It´s like a net. You can´t cut it down the middle without it being
destroyed," says Hassan Moamar, one of the villagers who waging a
seven-year battle against the wall, demanding it be built in Israel
proper instead of through their village.
The pastoral village, dotted by wells and water reservoirs, stands
above Refaim Stream and the railway track to Jerusalem, and is a
unique case in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its inhabitants were
the only Palestinians allowed to continue to cultivate their lands
inside Israel´s border after the 1948 war. The reason for this
anomaly, which was mentioned in the 1949 Armistice Agreements, was an
oral agreement between village leaders and Moshe Dayan: The villagers
were allowed to cultivate their lands in return for preventing damage
to the railway track or the trains.
Batir´s inhabitants continued to cultivate their lands on both sides
of the border until 1967 - and afterward. They feel that they kept
their part of the deal. One local tradition bars strangers from
sleeping in the village because they might be unaware of the rules
concerning the railway track.
The erection of the separation fence in Refaim Stream next to the
Green Line could separate the villagers from 740 acres of their land.
Building the fence according to this plan, the villagers say, would
be in violation of the 1949 Armistice Agreements and put an end to
the oral pact regarding the train tracks.
Since 2005 villagers have been waging a legal battle against the plan
for the fence and offering alternative routes. "A fence can´t protect
tracks, but people can," says one villager.
The Defense Ministry promises that the fence will include a gate to
enable them to reach their lands, but villagers are convinced that
once the fence is built, they won´t have access to the lands.
Moreover, the traditional water system won´t survive and might cause
the whole terrace system to collapse.
The area surrounding Batir is one of the last untouched areas
preserving the traditional Judean mountain landscape of "agricultural
steps," which is why it´s a candidate to become a UNESCO World
Heritage site. "The Defense Ministry thinks it´s like trimming a
fingernail, you cut a piece off but it doesn´t make any difference.
But you simply can´t allow large bulldozers to enter such an area.
The terraces will collapse, " says Giat Nasser, the attorney
representing Batir. The head of UNESCO´s office in Ramallah also
believes that building the fence according the current plan would
mean "complete destruction" of the ancient agricultural system.
The villagers petitioned the High Court of Justice against the
expropriation of their lands, but withdrew the petition after the
issue was deferred to a Finance Ministry advisory committee dealing
with expropriation of lands.
Nasser presented to the committee an alternative route for the
barrier, deep inside Israeli territory. "I told the committee I
wouldn´t listen to any argument referring to the international
border," the attorney says. "If the fence can be built dozens of
kilometers on the Palestinians side, it can also, in this one case,
be built a few hundred meters on the Israel side."
Nasser points out the environmental and security advantages of his
route: It passes through higher terrain, which meets Defense Ministry
demands, does not harm the traditional agricultural system and does
not violate the 1949 agreement. The plan would require special safety
measures for the railway tracks, which in any case will see a
reduction in traffic because of a new train route to Jerusalem, but
would prevent complications of opening gates and issuing permits if
the fence were built as originally planned.
In recent years the villagers have been cooperating with Friends of
the Earth, Middle East on several water, agriculture and
environmental projects in an effort to "brand" Batir as an ecological
village, and one attractive to tourists because of its age-old
traditions. The village´s first guest house is due to open this
summer. The fence threatens all this.
Meanwhile, villagers watch the fence being completed around their
neighboring village, Walaja, where agricultural terraces and
landscape were destroyed.
"On the Israeli side, terraces ceased to be used for agriculture and
are remnants. Here it´s still a living system," said Michal Sagiv,
project coordinator of Good Water Neighbors at Friends of the Earth
Middle East. (© Copyright 2012 Ha´aretz 04/20/12)
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