A spring in Batir.
A spring in Batir. The village is considered the last place in the Judean Hills that preserves traditional terrace farming. Photo by Michal Fattal
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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.