Palestinian residents in the West Bank village of Batir have rejected a compromise proposed by Israel's defense establishment on the construction of a particularly controversial section of the separation barrier that crosses over the ancient terraces in their community.
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In response to the villagers' petition filed with the High Court of Justice, defense officials had suggested building a fence, rather than a wall, in that specific section.
The Israeli officials say the compromise would minimize environmental damage to the area, but still provide the necessary security for an Israel Railway passenger line that passes through Batir.
But the Palestinian petitioners in turn rejected the compromise, suggesting that the state consider temporarily suspending service on the Israel Railway passenger train to and from Jerusalem.
The Palestinian Authority has applied for the ancient Batir terraces to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
In their rejection of the compromise last week, the Palestinian petitioners quoted landscape conservation experts who said that a fence would cause as much damage as a wall - both through direct damage to the terraces on which it would be built and by interrupting the contiguity of cultivated land.
The conservation experts also pointed out that a barrier would curtail the villagers' access to their fields on the Israeli side, even if security checks were rapid and passage convenient.
The original High Court petition was filed by Batir residents with support from Friends of the Earth Middle East and a number of Israeli citizens, after it emerged that the defense establishment was planning to build a high stone wall, 500 meters in length, near the village.
The state responded to the High Court petition by offering its compromise, claiming a chain-link fence would balance Israeli security needs with landscape conservation.
“The change involves taking a security risk because a chain-link fence is less effective than a wall, mainly in [protecting against] gunfire or the placement of explosive devices,” the state told the High Court. But a fence would minimize ecological damage while increasing a sense of contiguity between the village and its fields, some of which will be on the other side of it, the state added.
Defense officials have said that neither a fence nor a wall would impair the ability of Batir’s villagers to irrigate their cultivated terraces in the traditional way.
The state also said in its response to the petition that convenient passage would be created through a gated checkpoint under the fence to enable Batir’s farmers to work their fields. Under these circumstances, the villagers would have “eye and voice contact that would significantly contribute to the sense of contiguity” between the two sides of the fence, the state said.
The defense establishment stressed to the court that the barrier was necessary for security. Such protection had become even more essential following the November 2012 military operation in the Gaza Strip, Operation Pillar of Defense, which has increased motivation to carry out terror attacks on Israel’s home front, the defense establishment added.
The railway tracks are just eight meters from Batir’s school, the state pointed out. However, it emphasized to the court, “the threat from this close proximity is not necessarily from the residents of Batir, but from anyone who would take advantage of the proximity to the railroad.”
Noting that the state considers security of the railway line a key reason for building the barrier, the petitioners suggested suspending its operation in the area, especially, they wrote, “as this line is not used as a means of mass transit but as a tourist train.”
Since a new Jerusalem-Tel Aviv rail route is scheduled to begin operation within four or five years, the petitioners said, some compromise on train travel would still be needed to protect the site from ecological damage.