High Court Bans Work on Separation Fence Near West Bank Farming Village

Residents of Batir say construction would threaten ancient agricultural terraces and contravene a historic agreement made after the 1948 war.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

An injunction against beginning work on the separation fence between Israel and the West Bank in the area of the village of Batir was issued by the High Court of Justice Tuesday. The injunction followed a petition to the court by villagers, who say its construction would threaten ancient agricultural terraces and contravene a historic agreement made after the 1948 war.

Justice Uzi Vogelman gave the state 14 days to respond to the petition.

The West Bank village of Batir is located south of Jerusalem in the Judean Hills, next to the old Jerusalem-Tel Aviv railway line. Its 5,000 inhabitants own about 3,000 dunams (750 acres ) of land situated on the other side of the tracks, on the Israeli side of the Green Line. Thanks to an extraordinary agreement with Moshe Dayan, then commander of the Jerusalem area, the residents were allowed to continue working the land in exchange for preventing damage to trains running through the area. They were to become the only Palestinians allowed to work their lands over the Green Line after 1948.

The villagers are proud of the fact that they have kept to the agreement over the past 64 years. But construction of the fence constitutes a unilateral infraction of the historic accord, they say.

"According to the plan for the fence, the [village] lands will remain behind the fence, which will drastically change the status quo in the area and lead to the breaking of an international agreement between the parties," wrote Kais Nasser, the attorney representing the villagers, in the petition.

A coalition of environmental organizations is also party to the petition, warning of unprecedented damage to the unique terraced landscape, which is a candidate for UNESCO recognition as a World Heritage Site. According to an expert opinion submitted to the court, the terraced landscape is particularly important because of its disappearance from many parts of the Judean Hills.

Batir's farmers preserve a centuries-old tradition of mountain cultivation. The terraces are watered by an ancient and sophisticated system of channels and pools that lead spring water to its orchards and vineyards. The villagers say their week consists of eight days, based on the number of clans in the village, each of which can water their plots on the day that is named after them. Water allocation is measured by means of a measuring stick in the village's shared reservoir.

Construction of the fence would destroy this system, the petition says.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority, a governmental organization that had not previously opposed the planned route of the fence in this area, has changed its mind, as previously reported in Haaretz. It has joined the five major environmental groups in Israel in opposing construction of the fence near Batir, as is currently being proposed by the Defense Ministry.

The petitioners have proposed an alternative route for the fence that would leave the village lands on its eastern side. There have been almost no other cases so far in which the route of the fence has passed on the Israeli side of the Green Line. In the petition, Nasser states that Israel has transferred nearly 100,000 dunams (25,000 acres ) of Palestinian land to the Israeli side of the fence.

Nasser rejects the Defense Ministry's claim that current routing of the fence is necessary to protect the train line. Just as the state knows how to protect hundreds of kilometers of roads in the vicinity of the separation fence, it can also protect a short segment of railroad, the petition says.

The Defense Ministry said in response that the fence near Batir "is the last opening remaining in the protection of the residents of Jerusalem." The ministry added that the route "was planned for clear security purposes, which have been recognized by the High Court, to prevent terrorists from freely entering the city, including murderers like the ones who killed the female tourist near Moshav Mata, and to protect the train to the capital."

The Defense Ministry denied there would be any damage to the terraces and the irrigation system, and that environmental considerations had been given great weight. The ministry said the villagers would be able to continue working their lands in keeping with the Dayan agreement.

Batir resident and environmental activist Hassan Muammar on the balcony of his home in April.Credit: Michal Fattal

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