Palestinians Renew Call for UN World Heritage Status for West Bank Village

Batir, on whose land the separation barrier is being built, hopes to attain the coveted UNESCO designation; the move suggests dwindling hopes for a peace deal by late April.

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Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The Palestinian Authority has renewed its request to have the West Bank village of Batir recognized as a protected site by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization.

PA officials turned to the UN agency two weeks ago and asked it to begin an emergency procedure to recognize the ancient terraces of Batir, near Bethlehem, as a World Heritage Site, hoping this will block the planned construction of part of the separation barrier there.

The Palestinians, who since October 2011 have enjoyed the status of a member state in UNESCO, froze a similar process in June 2013 at the request of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who at the time was actively involved in renewing the peace talks. As part of the understandings with the U.S. administration that led to a renewal of the diplomatic negotiations, the Palestinians agreed to freeze unilateral steps in various UN agencies.

A renewal of the process in UNESCO may signify that the Palestinians are preparing for the possibility that Kerry will not succeed in formulating a framework agreement that will constitute a basis for continuing the negotiations, and that the peace talks will blow up and not be extended beyond April 29 - the date determined in advance for their conclusion. When the talks were launched last year, Kerry said he wanted the sides to conclude a deal in nine months.

Sources at UNESCO noted that the Palestinian request was submitted on January 31, the final date for presenting candidacy for sites in advance of the discussions of the World Heritage Committee, to take place in June in Doha, the capital of Qatar. In the coming weeks experts on behalf of the organization will be coming to the region in order to examine the site and to decide whether to recommend the committee vote in favor of the Palestinian request. Senior Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem noted that Israel is keeping track of the Palestinian move and will try to prevent it.

The Palestinians submitted their request in an emergency procedure, which enables an accelerated discussion of sites that are in danger of destruction, and whose inclusion on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites would prevent them from being harmed. The Palestinians claim that building the separation barrier will damage the ancient terraces and destroy a unique irrigation and agricultural system that is thousands of years old.

The Palestinian request to recognize the terraces in Batir as a World Heritage site is very sensitive, both diplomatically and legally. The issue of the construction of the separation barrier at the site is still pending in the High Court of Justice. The Israeli Nature and Parks Authority and the Friends of the Earth agree with the Palestinian view and claim that building the barrier will seriously damage nature and archaeological sites.

In May 2012, the Palestinians first turned to UNESCO with a request to grant the terraces in Batir the status of a World Heritage Site. In the request, which Haaretz was the first to report at the time, the Palestinians emphasized that “the construction of houses, roads and infrastructure for Israeli settlers only has caused the region and its residents to be imprisoned inside an enclave, and this threatens the integrity of the landscape and the ecological and environmental balance.”

But after submission of the initial request, an internal battle began within the PA between those who support the promotion of Batir’s candidacy and others who wanted to promote the candidacy of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. Despite pressures by village residents on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the PA decided in the end to promote the candidacy of the church, which was in fact declared a World Heritage Site.

The village of Batir, five kilometer west of Bethlehem, is situated above Refaim Stream and the railway to Jerusalem. It is considered the last place in the Judean Hills that still preserves the traditional landscape of terrace agriculture, which has existed in the region since the Roman period. The ancient terraces include an irrigation system that distributes the water among the families in the village. They are the only Palestinians who were allowed to continue to cultivate their land beyond the Green Line, in Israeli territory, at the end of the 1948 War of Independence, and this permission was even anchored in the 1949 Armistice Agreements in Rhodes. Alongside the written agreement there was also an oral agreement between Moshe Dayan and the village leaders, that in exchange for permission to cultivate the land the residents would refrain from harming the railway and the train.

The construction of the separation barrier inside the Refaim Stream area near the Green Line, between the railway and the village, will in future separate the residents from about 3,000 dunams of their land, and this is liable to lead to a violation of both the official international agreement and the unofficial agreement. Since 2005 the residents have been waging a legal battle over the route of the separation barrier, in a series of High Court deliberations.

Palestinians want the terraces of Batir designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Credit: Michal Fattal

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