The Palestinian Authority is expected to ask UNESCO on Wednesday to recognize the West Bank village of Batir as a World Heritage site and prevent the construction of the separation fence there. Haaretz has obtained a copy of the request, which seeks to preserve the village's ancient agricultural terraces.
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UNESCO's annual World Heritage convention is due to begin in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 24. The Palestinians, who were accepted as full members of UNESCO in October, will submit the request as an emergency procedure, allowing a swift resolution on a site that may be at risk.
The 72-page request, submitted by the Palestinian Tourism Ministry and the PA antiquities authority, was signed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The ministry had hoped to recommend Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity as a World Heritage site, but pressure from Batir, the support of UNESCO's representative in Ramallah, and the fact that there is no immediate danger to the church convinced Abbas to agree to the villagers' demand.
According to the request, "the nominated property is currently at risk because of the Separation Barrier currently being constructed by the Government of Israel. The Battir Village Council brought this case to the Israeli Supreme Court. The court case aims at preventing the construction of the 'Barrier' in a historically sensitive area such as the 'jenan' or 'gardens' where a millenary irrigation system is still in use to water the vegetable gardens of Battir."
"The Israeli Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision in the near future, which justifies the submission of this dossier to be processed on an emergency basis, in order to protect an area of 'Outstanding Universal Value' and prevent its irreversible destruction."
The document continues: "Since 1967, intensive Israeli activities of settlement expansion are threatening the property and its surrounding villages. The increasing construction of housing units, infrastructures, roads and other various kinds of services for the exclusive use of Israeli settlers, has resulted in the progressive enclavisation of both the territorial area and the inhabitants of the nominated property, severely threatening the integrity of its landscape and the sustainability of its ecological and environmental equilibrium."
Batir, dotted by wells and reservoirs, stands above Refaim Stream and the railway to Jerusalem. Its inhabitants were the only Palestinians allowed to cross the Green Line and cultivate their land in Israel after the 1948 war.
This anomaly, which was mentioned in the 1949 Armistice Agreements, was based on an oral agreement between village leaders and Moshe Dayan. The villagers were allowed to cultivate their land if they pledged not to damage the railway or attack the trains.
If the separation fence is extended at Refaim Stream next to the Green Line, it could separate the villagers from 740 acres of their land. Building the fence according to this plan, the villagers say, would violate the 1949 Armistice Agreements and end the oral agreement.
Since 2005, villagers have been waging a legal battle against the construction of the separation barrier in the area. Israel's High Court has held several hearings on the matter in recent weeks and is expected to issue a verdict in the near future.
The Defense Ministry promises that the fence will include a gate to let farmers reach their land, but villagers say that once the fence is built, they won't have access to the land. Moreover, the traditional water system will not survive and might cause the whole terrace system to collapse.