Israel’s cabinet on Sunday put off making a decision on the route of the West Bank separation barrier in the area of the Palestinian village of Battir while it discusses the issue further and examines alternatives.
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The cabinet had been widely expected to approve a route for the barrier that was opposed by villagers, preservationists, environmentalists, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and even residents of Jewish settlements in the Etzion Bloc.
In the wake of an emergency application submitted by Palestinian officials, in June the Unesco World Heritage Committee recognized Battir as a protected World Heritage site, for its ancient agricultural terraces, which are still farmed today. In response, Supreme Court President Justice Asher Grunis ordered the state to reexamine its decision to build the barrier in the Battir area in light of the political implications of the move. Sunday’s cabinet debate was a response to Grunis’ ruling, but in light of the Defense Ministry’s support for the original plan it was thought the resolution would be approved without changes to the route of the barrier.
But after Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett raised objections to building the barrier along the proposed route, it was agreed to reevaluate the issue and to examine alternatives that would avoid possible damage to the terraces.
Environmentalists welcomed the decision and expressed hope that it was a first step toward a solution that would not require erecting a fence, as did Jewish settlers in the area, who feared being left on the other side of the barrier.
“We welcome the recognition by the prime minister and several members of his cabinet of the potential risks of approving the current route,” Israeli Director of EcoPeace / Friends of the Earth Middle East Gideon Bromberg said. “We hope that in the intervening period before the new discussion on the matter the cabinet will reconsider the route, or at least the project’s current configuration.”
The legal battle over the construction of the barrier in the area began seven years ago. Battir villagers claim the proposed route would destroy the landscape and their unique traditional irrigation system. Jewish settlers in the Etzion Bloc have recently argued that the security situation in the area has improved, obviating the need for that section of the barrier. The Defense Ministry maintains that the damage to the terraces from the barrier would be minimal and that the irrigation system would not be affected.