A Death Sentence to This Valley

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The green organizations fought for years to save the Refaim Valley, which meanders its way to Jerusalem from the south. They persuaded the planners of a major road to route it through tunnels below the valley, and succeeded in fending off the construction of a new Jerusalem neighborhood. Yet now they are virtually powerless to prevent the separation fence, which will destroy the southern reaches of the valley and wreak havoc on the quality of life of the Palestinian villages near it.

The Refaim Valley landscape, shaped in part by one of the world's oldest exemplars of agriculture, has until now largely been spared from development and construction. The recently upgraded Tel Aviv-Jerusalem rail line passes through the valley, but had only limited environmental effect.

In the past few weeks, work is scheduled to begin on construction of the separation fence, which will pass along the southern cliff looking down on the valley that has been declared a national park and, according to the Jerusalem municipality plans, is supposed to serve as a metropolitan park. The fence will wind along the edges of the Palestinian villages Walaja and Batir, and through the heart of the terraces worked by residents of the villages. It will cut them off from Jerusalem and will obliterate the landscape so characteristic of the region.

The defense establishment has been occupied of late with a final review of the fence's route in the Walaja-Batir area, although no tangible changes are planned, only a variety of proposals pertaining to the width of the fence. The route itself has already been determined, and the upcoming meeting between security officials responsible for construction of the fence and the director general of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), Eli Amitai, is not expected to lead to significant changes.

Walaja will be left outside the fence. It will be surrounded on nearly every side, and residents will be able to exit freely only in the direction of Bethlehem. "This is a village that continues to engage in agriculture with an ancient tradition that is based on the two natural springs located on the hill," says Ze'ev Hacohen, a INPA warden who is tracking progress of the separation fence in the Jerusalem hills. "One of the springs is fed by the longest water tunnel in the Judean hills. The fence will pass right on top of the springs, and even if they move it a meter or two it will still go right over them."

Bar Kochba's last stand

The fence will continue westward to a checkpoint that will be placed on a road that currently bypasses Walaja. From there it will reach the village of Batir, which has a special relationship with the Israeli government. In 1949, Israel permitted residents of the village, which was left inside Jordanian territory, to continue working their land that was in Israeli territory. The residents of Batir did not strike at the railway line to Jerusalem, and have in recent years made efforts to pursue their peaceful lifestyle. Now the defense establishment is promising to respect the old agreements with the Batir villagers with regards to farming the land, but this guarantee cannot save the terraces or the harm to quality of life.

After going through the village school, the fence will pass through the agricultural terraces, partly as a concrete wall that will absolutely destroy some of the terraces. The next stage is climbing the cliff on which the archaeological tell of ancient Betar - site of Bar Kokhba's last stand in 135 C.E. - is located.

The most extensive damage is anticipated further south, at the point where the fence crosses Nahal Hamayanot (the brook of springs). In the opinion of many experts on ancient settlement and agriculture, this is one of the most unique and beautiful preservation sites of the agricultural heritage of the region.

The nahal is home to agriculture that exploits spring water flow to irrigate small plots along the channel and slopes of the hillside. The fence will cross the width of Nahal Hamayanot and then climb up to the cliff. In this case, the nahal's agricultural plots will remain in Batir territory and it will be possible to continue working them. But as a complete and preserved example of the ancient landscape, Batir's Nahal Hamayanot will cease to exist. Even the finest landscape planners and architects could not combine ancient agricultural terraces with an electronic fence.

`Harsh feelings'

The separation fence will continue westward and come close to the houses of Wadi Fukin, another Palestinian village that maintains an elaborate system of ancient agriculture, one even larger than Batir's. This village takes advantage of nine springs and has dozens of water storage pools.

Cooperative efforts have begun recently between residents of Wadi Fukin and the environmental group "Friends of the Earth Middle East," in which both Israelis and Palestinians are active, and with residents of the nearby Israeli village of Zur Hadassah. The intent was to create a "neighbors path" that would have enabled tourists to walk on both sides of the Green Line and enjoy the sight of the ancient culture preserved there. Now it is not clear what can be salvaged from the program.

"We understand the security need for a fence," says Mike Leiter, a resident of Zur Hadassah who belongs to the local branch of Friends of the Earth. "But as we see it, we must not take the agricultural lands of Wadi Fukin residents, but they have already been served with warrants, the meaning of which is expropriation of some of this land. It is not clear why the fence here strays from the Green Line. It the intention is to create land reserves for Jewish settlements on the other side of the Green Line, you have to ask if it is justified to harm the livelihood of residents who did nothing wrong in order to promote this goal, while creating harsh feelings of injustice among them.

"We will try to persuade the Defense Ministry to enable the construction of a gate in this section of the fence so that it would be possible to maintain contact on either side of the fence and to help the residents of Wadi Fukin earn a living. We proposed to residents of the village that they prepare a master plan so that it will be possible to understand their needs and what threats to agriculture in the village may be anticipated as an outcome of the construction of the fence and building plans in the area."

INPA officials have not intervened as yet in the damage done to Palestinian farmland in other sections of the separation fence. But they could not remain apathetic in face of the probable devastation of an agricultural system that is thousands of years old in the Refaim Valley region, which is also a national park of primary importance.

However, as with other places along the length of the separation fence, INPA officials have discovered that they have limited ability to act. At most, they can slightly shift the course of isolated sections of the fence, or slightly reduce the width of the strip that includes several layers of fence, moat and security road.

The INPA cannot rely on public pressure from the green organizations to help it make a case on the separation fence. Most of these organizations are observing almost complete silence when it comes to the fence. They reached the conclusion that they have no chance of winning any real change on ecological or environmental grounds, in a project that the establishment justifies for saving of human lives.

In the case of Walaja and Batir, the INPA proposed an alternative route, in which the fence would pass Walaja on the other side, leaving both the village and its terraces inside Israel, and thereby staving off any damage to the springs. Other alternatives are reducing the width of the fence strip in areas through which it would pass in Walaja or Batir. Some INPA professionals argued that the IDF could effectively supervise the Refaim Valley area without building a fence through it, but in the course of the meetings with defense establishment representatives, the INPA did not present any option of non-construction of the fence.

End of a dream

Ze'ev Hacohen is already bleakly preparing for the arrival of the fence contractors and meetings with the Defense Ministry's landscape architects. He assesses that they will try to reduce the damage, but it is clear from what he says that the construction work will do irreversible damage to the agricultural lifestyle. It is also the end of a dream that in the distant future envisioned the Refaim Valley as a park that crossed international borders, in which the Palestinian side's agricultural landscapes would blend into a weave of natural landscape and ancient heritage.

Sources in the defense establishment say there is cooperation with the INPA in all sections of the separation fence, and that was successful experience of curtailing damage to the environment in the course of work carried out in the Gilboa region. This sort of dialogue is supposed to take place sometime in the next few weeks for two other sections that cross through nature reserves, Wadi Kelt and the northern Judean Desert. INPA officials are afraid that the fence will destroy the open desert expanse in these places, as well, which has always characterized them.

"We are making a big effort to ensure that important security activity will not do long-term damage to the country's landscapes," says one security source linked to the fence project. "The cooperation in the Gilboa range is now giving results, and you can now see the successful rehabilitation of the landscape in the aftermath of actions we carry out in coordination with the INPA people. In the Judean Desert and in Wadi Kelt, we are assessing a few alternatives to the fence route, so as to reduce the harm to nature."

The same security official explains that the security conception requires a fence through extensive areas of the Judean Hills region. To the west of Wadi Fukin will be an open section without a fence, in which supervision will be performed in part through technological measures. This cannot be done in other sections, due to their close proximity to Jewish settlements that require the protection only a fence can give. "We cannot leave free passage to perpetrators of terrorist attacks heading toward Jerusalem. The question that remains is how to build the fence, and therefore options like a narrower fence is some spots are being weighed. We cannot decide that we are saving a national park but are enabling the entry of terrorists. The basic premise is that ensuring human life is more important than a beautiful landscape."



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