UNESCO group votes to protect ancient Palestinian terraces from Israel’s wall

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Battir terraces, photograph by Daniella Cheslow
Battir terraces, photograph by Daniella Cheslow

We have just learned of a major victory for Palestine: the village of Battir south of Jerusalem, renowned for 2000-year-old terraced plots and ancient olive trees, has been named a World Heritage Site in Danger by a UNESCO committee meeting today in Qatar. The status is a blow to Israeli plans to divide the occupied village with the separation wall. We are informed that the Palestinian delegation was “hugely emotional” following the vote. 

First, here is a piece by Samia Ayyash explaining the village’s perilous situation: 

South of Jerusalem in the Palestinian village of Battir flow seven springs whose waters trickle through ancient Roman channels and pools to irrigate a lush landscape – the livelihood of its people. With hiking trails full of hand-made dry stone terraces, Roman graves, and hands that tend the land without the use of heavy machinery, Battir is a land that speaks to the soul. For the fortunate travelers who make their way to the village’s living Eco-Museum and Guest House, there is a deep connection to centuries of hard work. However, over the course of the next few days the future of this living connection to human heritage will be up for grabs as the World Heritage Committee deliberates the nomination of Battir as a World Heritage Site in Danger.

Not to be forgotten in these talks are the people of Battir. In addition to the awe of their agricultural persistence, the fate of Battir is of international concern because of the potential human rights violations that will affect generations by ill-considered actions that cannot be reversed. If Battir cannot be saved by UNESCO’s World Heritage Program as it rightfully should, Israel’s illegal Separation Barrier (International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion in 2004) will destine Battir to a common Palestinian fate: an uprooted people, an eternal lack of contiguity between families and friends, and a people deprived of their rights to cultural participation, self-determination, and dignity.

If Israel is allowed to continue with its unilateral security decisions, the illegal Separation Barrier will rob the indigenous people of Battir of their right to economic, social, and cultural rights not to mention that Israel’s actions will invalidate the 65 year old Rhodes Armistice Agreements between Israel and the people of Battir. These agreements stipulate that the people of Battir have access to their lands that fell within the Israeli state and retain ownership of them in exchange for their security cooperation regarding the ‘Jerusalem-Jaffa’ railway that runs through the village. Until today, there has not been one Palestinian violation to this agreement. Peculiar enough, but not eccentric for Israel, the Separation Barrier is to be built running through the village of Battir for ‘security reasons’ to protect the seldom-used railway which Palestinians are not permitted to use. Meanwhile, a modern light railway is being built elsewhere by the Israeli government to service the same route faster.

So what is left for the citizens of Battir? As we’ve learned time and time again, universal human rights mean nothing when it comes to Palestinian citizens up against Israel’s infallibility. Will Battir’s nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Danger be enough to challenge encroaching settlements and the continued colonization of Palestinian land? As citizens all over the world it is on us to weigh the value of human heritage.

In this unique Palestinian village, we also see unparalleled cross-cultural cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli organizations for the preservation of Battir as a cultural landscape. Israeli communities as well as the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority have expressed concern regarding destruction to the natural and historic landscape if the planned route of the Separation Barrier continues. While human rights are not underscored as the primary international concern for all advocates, Battir presents a distinguished case of resistance to Israeli imperialism. For advocates from all sides looking for a future of peace for the people of the region and those displaced by ongoing injustices, Battir presents a clear case of human and cultural rights that unite all of us and that we can only hope will continue to unite us across the land of historic Palestine and elsewhere.

Now here are excerpts of a cover letter from two human rights lawyers, Susan Akram of Boston University and Deena Hurwitz of the University of Virginia, framing an appeal to the UNESCO committee from 50 archaeologists, architects, political scientists, Arab studies scholars, and other professionals on behalf of the people of Battir. 

H.E. Sheikha Al Mayassa Bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani
Chairperson, UNESCO 38th Session, World Heritage Committee
Doha, Qatar

Your Excellency Mme. Chairperson,

On behalf of over 50 colleagues in the fields of law, archeology, landscape architecture, geography, global studies, conflict resolution, political science, Arab studies, housing, physics, and journalism, we respectfully send the attached Communication concerning the Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir (Palestine), which is being considered this month by the World Heritage Committee for inscription on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

As you undoubtedly know, the preservation of this landscape is of international concern. It is a  contemporary cultural and archaeological gem, facing certain irreversible damage from Israel’s planned expansion of the “security barrier”. The International Court of Justice stated in 2004 that the “current route of the Wall” is illegal, primarily because it is within Palestinian territory.

Above all, we ask that the World Heritage Committee give full consideration to the essential human rights at issue in the nomination, the right of the people of Battir to economic, social and cultural rights overall, and to cultural participation in particular.

Jadaliyyah has published that appeal from the 50 professionals, who are named at the link. They include Akram, Hurwitz, Salman Abu Sitta, John Dugard, Rashid Khalidi, Neve Gordon, Ilan Pappe, William Quandt, and Kerry Kennedy. The text without footnotes reads:

Battir is a Palestinian village located on the border which separates the West Bank from Israel since 1948; its human historic landscape, characterized by dry-stone terraces and ancient irrigation systems dating back to pre-roman times, yet in use according to traditional agricultural practices, is menaced by the construction of the Separation Barrier, which, if built, will irreversibly damage the site and disrupt the way of living of its inhabitants. “This is a landscape produced by centuries of hard work; it could be destroyed in days by ill-considered actions” (Prof. P. Fowler, UK).

The people of Battir, supported jointly by Palestinian and Israeli environmental organizations, brought a case to the Israeli High Court of Justice. As of today, the court-case, which is comprehensively covered by local and international media, is ongoing. The people of Battir, a village that has in its record a peaceful coexistence with Israelis across the border, believe that a viable, non-invasive, peaceful solution is possible to avoid the destruction and loss of their land and livelihood.

The State of Palestine, in an attempt to safeguard this unique site and transmit its values to future generations, submitted an emergency dossier to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre for the nomination of the Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem at the 38th Session of the World Heritage Committee, to be held in Doha, Qatar, from 15-25 June 2014. The decision of the World Heritage Committee is not obvious, as it may be influenced by a variety of factors.

In support of this effort, the international human rights clinics of Univ. of Virginia and Boston University Law school, along with over 50 experts from all over the world–experts in global studies, conflict resolution, political science, Arab studies, housing, physics, and journalism, prepared and sent a Communication to the Committee. The Communication Concerning the Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir, Palestine, has been submitted for consideration by the Committee in its deliberations next week in Doha, to decide on the village’s inscription on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

The preservation of the Battir landscape is of international concern. It is a contemporary cultural and archaeological gem, facing certain irreversible damage from Israel’s planned expansion of the “security barrier”. The International Court of Justice stated in 2004 that the “current route of the Wall” is illegal, primarily because it is within Palestinian territory.

This extraordinary international effort is intended to persuade the World Heritage Committee to give full and careful consideration to the essential human rights at issue in the nomination, the right of the people of Battir to economic, social and cultural rights overall, and to cultural participation in particular.

As Battir wrote in a communication to Pope Francis on his recent visit, “Today the landscape of Battir -characterized by the tree of peace, the olive- represents one of the rare opportunities to portray a place where dialogue is possible across the border, to pursue the defense of land and the protection of human rights, and to foster Peace in the Holy Land, for Palestinians, Israelis and all of Humanity.”

[The following open letter was issued by the below signatories to the members of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee on 3 June 2014.]

To the Honorable Members of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee:

WE, THE UNDERSIGNED, representing the University of Virginia School of Law International Human Rights Law Clinic; Boston University School of Law Human Rights Clinic; and esteemed professionals in the fields of law, archeology, landscape architecture, geography, global studies, conflict resolution, political science, Arab studies, housing, physics, journalism, respectfully address the World Heritage Committee regarding the nomination of the village and landscape of Battir in the State of Palestine as a World Heritage Site in Danger.

The preservation of Battir is a matter of international concern, as underscored by the International Court of Justice in its Advisory Opinion on the Wall of 2004. [1] The World Heritage Committee is called to take a decision at its 38th Session (Doha, Qatar, June 15-25, 2014) on the submission. The nominated site has been evaluated by ICOMOS with references to the many cultural heritage aspects of the site, such as ancient terraces and irrigation systems, as well as archaeological features and historic landscape values. ICOMOS’ May 2014 conclusion not to recommend the Battir landscape for safeguarding directly contradicts the opinion of the World Monument Fund (WMF) issued less than six months earlier. The WMF designated the landscape a 2014 World Monument Watch site at risk. [2] We write to underscore the human rights concerns, including cultural and historical issues that require special consideration. We hope the concerns highlighted will weigh in further support for listing the Battir landscape as a World Heritage Site. Battir presents an extraordinary and urgent circumstance, and we respectfully request the World Heritage Committee give serious consideration to our submission.

We urge the World Heritage Committee, in addition to evaluating retrospective historical and present conditions, to consider a counterfactual prospective inquiry. Should Battir not be protected, the irreversible destruction of the site, and its living history in which its people engage, will be accelerated due to Israel’s plans for the Security Barrier. [3]

Human Rights are essential factors to consider in deciding whether to list Battir as a World Heritage Site.

The impact of the planned Israeli measures to the historical landscape of Battir is a UNESCO concern. To fulfill UNESCO’s priority of mainstreaming human rights in all its areas of action [4], it is paramount for the World Heritage Committee to consider those human rights that fall directly under UNESCO’s competence. Inscription on the World Heritage List will aid in preventing violation of these rights in Battir. Cultural rights are protected human rights essential to human dignity and to self-determination, and are just as much a part of world heritage as are ancient olive groves and irrigation systems forming a unique terraced landscape.

The human right to cultural participation is guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), among other treaties: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” [5] “To participate” is widely understood to include participation, access to, and contribution to cultural life, according to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. [6] Access includes access to language, to education in cultural traditions, and to cultural resources like land, water and biodiversity. [7] Furthermore, “[i]n the Committee’s view, culture is a broad, inclusive concept encompassing all manifestations of human existence. The expression ‘cultural life’ is an explicit reference to culture as a living process, historical, dynamic and evolving, with a past, a present and a future.” [8] The International Labour Organization and the Human Rights Committee have also defined “way[s] of life associated with the use of land resources” as a cultural right. [9]

In Battir, the land and water are the culture of its people. Neighbors share in an ancient tradition of water distribution, rotating access to the irrigation. Children tend to the gardens, alone, or with their mothers and fathers. Elders who grew up sleeping under the olive trees measure the water each day. Harvests facilitate intergenerational gatherings and engagement for those family members who have left Battir and return to participate in cultivation of the fields and other socio- economic activities with their community.

The right to cultural participation is related to the right to education. [10] The human right to education includes “the transmission and enrichment of common cultural and moral values in which the individual and society find their identity and worth.” [11] Through working together on the land, villagers of Battir pass on values, religion, custom, language, and cultural references. They also invite others to be a part of their living history. The village hosts a guest house, maintains hiking trails, and their eco-museum is visited by travelers from around the world.

The Exceptional and Unique Status of Battir Village and its Land as Part of Palestinian Self- Determination

The human right to cultural participation is interdependent with the human right to self- determination. [12] Conserving Battir through World Heritage status will not only preserve ancient architecture (including archeological remains from the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, Roman and Byzantine periods), but it will conserve a traditional, deliberate way of life. It is truly a living cultural heritage site. The individual and collective choice to participate in or carry on cultural traditions “should be recognized, respected and protected on the basis of equality.” [13]

The villagers are persisting – against all odds – to keep these traditions alive, even in the face of threats and regulations imposed by the Israeli Defense Forces. It is clear that they wish to continue participating in this living history. As a Battir landowner said, “We stick with the land. It doesn’t matter what government is here – British, Ottoman, Palestinian, Israeli – we stick with the land.” [14]

International UNESCO World Heritage recognition may be the only mechanism able to persuade Israel not to interfere with the people and their land. Not only does the village of Battir and its cultural landscape independently feature ancient human-made relics, the living history of its people deserves heightened protective status and recognition.

As signatories, we support Battir and recognize the importance and authority that human rights brings to bear in conserving cultural and ancient heritage.


AN ORGANICALLY EVOLVED LANDSCAPE: The cultural landscape of Battir (historic- human-living landscape) embodies the concept and assets of an organically evolved landscape, yet in use as of today, according to UNESCO-WHC terminology.
A CULTURAL HERITAGE SITE: This includes 554,000 linear meters of hand-made dry- stone terraces within an area of 12 sq. km, encompassing a variety of rain-fed cultivations including multi-centenary monumental olive trees, and, in the proximity of seven springs, ancient irrigation systems made of channels and pools enabling the cultivation of vegetable gardens; as well as archaeological sites and features, e.g. prehistoric hilltops, fortifications and Roman graves.

HUMAN CREATION: This is a human creation produced by centuries of hard work that can be destroyed in days by ill-considered actions.

HUMAN RIGHTS: The people of Battir continue to cultivate their land according to unaltered traditional practices, including water allocation, over more than twenty centuries; as this has long been a cultural pattern in their lives, the people of Battir have the right to “freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 27).

THREATS AND IRREVERSIBLE DAMAGE: The Government of Israel is undertaking unilateral security measures such as the construction of the Separation Barrier which, if implemented, will irreversibly destroy one of the most precious portions of the landscape of Battir, notably the irrigated terraces named Al-Jinan (the Gardens of Paradise). While the Separation Barrier is planned to be built primarily on Israeli territory bordering the West Bank, its construction will nonetheless cut the terraces, irreversibly affecting the integrity of the site, the continuity in the agricultural practices, and the ecosystem as a whole.

A WORLD HERITAGE SITE IN DANGER: Inscribing Battir on the World Heritage List in Danger, as a property nominated by the State of Palestine in January 2014, is the most immediate and effective remedy to achieve its concrete protection from the imminent threat represented by the construction of the Separation Barrier. Its inscription will play a key role in the ongoing court case at the Israeli High Court of Justice, where the State of Israel would have to consider the implications of damaging a World Heritage property bordering its territory.

INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION: The values of the cultural landscape of Battir have been recognized internationally through the award of the UNESCO-Greece Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes (2011),[15] the inclusion as a Watch site by the World Monuments Fund,[16] which every two years selects the most endangered heritage sites in the world (2014).

LOCAL COMMUNITY: The Palestinian local community (as well as the Israeli communities living across the Armistice Line) are proactively participating in the preservation of this cultural landscape, enabled by seven years of multi-faceted and multi-stakeholder projects, led by UNESCO and supported by the international community.

CROSS-BORDER COOPERATION: These populations are working to conserve this unique cultural landscape, and have together submitted a petition to the Israeli High Court of Justice against the building of the Separation Barrier, slated to be built through the terraced landscape site. This is an extremely important show of cross-border stakeholder support, showing vested interests in the preservation of this ancient cultural landscape. The Israeli Nature and Parks Authority has expressed its concerns regarding the construction of the Separation Barrier and supported the integral safeguarding of the site, including participating in the lawsuit against the Israeli Barrier encroachment in Battir.

MEDIA ATTENTION: The case was brought to the attention of local and international media which have reported about it in hundreds of articles and other media features.

WHY WE MUST PROTECT BATTIR: The safeguarding of the living landscape of Battir and its inhabitants embodies the respect of mutual interests, protects both history and human rights, and encourages the possibility of dialogue between Israel and Palestine.

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May this be the first of many more victories for Palestine and the Palestinians!

What a great move. This has saved the Palestinians in many ways, including safeguarding their lands from the evil monsters that swallow Palestinian land. I wish there were other territories, where similar moves to preserve these lands, could be implemented. This must be heartening to the Palestinians, who suffer the… Read more »

I suggest naming all of Palestine a World Heritage Site.

Did Israel along with the US ever get around to pay their dues to UNESCO? If Israel cannot be moved by the Security Council, it’s highly doubtful UNESCO could stop Israel from building its wall where it wants.

How can people from Europe and America and North Africa and South Asia who claim that their co-religionists had an intimate relationship with the land of Palestine two thousand years ago attempt to destroy the lives of a group of people who have had a continuous and organic relationship with… Read more »