Neither Jews nor Palestinians Have a Patent on Terrace Farming

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Ramat Raziel seen earlier this month after a large fire in the Judean Hills.
Ramat Raziel seen earlier this month after a large fire in the Judean Hills.

A dramatic scene is revealed on the road from Mount Tayasim Nature Reserve to Moshav Ramat Raziel in the Jerusalem Hills: an expansive slope, completely burned, dotted with the skeletons of blackened trees. But the fire also revealed a spectacular system of terraces, the foundations of the landscape that for decades was hidden by the trees.

This vista launched a debate over the question of to whom the terraces belong. The terraces in the Judean Hills are Jewish, says Mor Altshuler, in response to Hanin Majadli. Therefore, she argues, the pine trees, which were planted by the Jewish National Fund, were not intended to conceal them. But the truth is more complex and interesting.

A terrace is the most salient characteristic of a cultural landscape, created by humans over decades or centuries. Its greatness is in its simplicity: low, dry stone walls built with local stone prevent erosion and allow cultivation. The dating of the terraces in the Judean Hills is a complex scientific issue, not to be confused with the somewhat childish political question of who was here first and who owns the landscape.

The most important scientific inquiry into the question was made in 2016 by a team of researchers led by Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University. They used optically stimulated luminescence, which dates the last time the quartz crystals in the depth of the terrace soil were exposed to sunlight. The results were conclusive: The team found a few terraces that were 1,500- 2,000 years old (none of them dated to biblical times), but most were no more than 400 years old. Thus, the magnificent terraced landscape of the Judean Hills is the work of farmers who cultivated the land during the Ottoman era – Palestinian Arab inhabitants of this land, most of whom were expelled in 1948.

The study raised a debate, with other scholars claiming that OSL dated the last time the terrace was renovated, not when it was built. Another question was how a small city like Ottoman Jerusalem and the surrounding villages could maintain such a large system of terraces. But the study confirmed as historical fact that at the very least, the Arab fellahin own a golden share in shaping the Judean Hills landscape.

Anyone seeking further proof of the close connection between Palestinian fellahin and the terraces will find it along the pre-1967 border in the Refa’im Valley, south of Jerusalem. To the left are the beautiful, well-kept, terraces of the villages of Battir and Walaja; to the right, the pine forests covering the half-ruined terraces of the villages that were inhabited until 1948.

Majadli is right to say that the pines are the enemies of the terraces. Not only because one of the purposes in planting them was to wipe out the previous landscape, but also because of their short root systems. Every time a pine tree falls, which happens often, it takes part of the terrace with it. The greatest destruction to the terraces in the Judean Hills was presumably in the winter of 2013, when a major snowstorm uncovered a spectacular series of terraces like the one below Ramat Raziel. On the other hand, when the burned pines begin to fall, they will destroy those terraces.

When the scientific question of dating the terraces moves to the political realm, it turns superficial and undergoes dehumanization. Altshuler states that the Muslims “inherited” the terracing technique from Jewish farmers who worked the biblical “steps.” This suggests that in 1948, the Jews took back their own property. But from whom did the Jews inherit the steps? From the Canaanites? And did the Canaanites inherit them from the Neolithic farmers? This attempt at appropriation is absurd. The landscape, especially around Jerusalem, is a long and complex accretion from a variety of cultures and identities, and no complex scientific study is needed to know that the Arabs who lived in these mountains until 1948 contributed greatly to its design. Whether or not they inherited ancient terraces.

A terrace is not a patented invention, but rather a part of the daily life of real people who lived here. These people were expelled from their land 73 years ago, and ever since an effort has been made to obscure their existence in the landscape and in history. Like the prickly pear cactus, the sabra, the terraces are a mark on the land, a reminder. To deny the existence of the deportees and the mark they left is to flee from the truth and the pain of their descendants. The terraces are an extraordinary architectural and cultural treasure that is part of the story of this land. The state must nurture and preserve this treasure, and decent Israelis must look squarely at the landscape and the truth behind it: The terraces below Ramat Raziel were built by the villagers of Kasla, who lived there until the Nakba. The British census of 1931 counted 299 inhabitants, mainly members of two families, Hazayan and Iyad.

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