On Sunday Israel’s High Court ruled to freeze state plans to build a part of Israel’s “separation” barrier that would have gone through the middle of Battir, a victory for the farming village of 5,000 people located west of Bethlehem in the southern West Bank.
The decision comes after years of resistance from locals as well as outside forces that worked to achieve recognition of Battir as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Danger, and to raise awareness in the international community of how the environment would be negatively impacted by construction of the wall in the area. More than 75 percent of Battir is considered part of Area C, which, according to the Oslo accords is under full Israeli military and civilian control.
The Green Line runs through a valley in the center of Battir, with the majority of residents and their houses on one side, and much of their agricultural land on the other. At present, while there is no concrete wall, a fence marks the divide, increasing the time and energy it takes for farmers and residents to access their land forcing them to trek around the fence. The location of the wall as proposed would have cut through several homes, as well as cut off the village from the single school in the village.
While Israel claims that the Separation Wall is for “security reasons,” only a small portion of the wall’s path actually runs along the Green line separating Israel from the West Bank. Eighty-five percent of the wall snakes through the West Bank, separating Palestinians from their own land and their own neighborhoods, and leading many to refer to it as the “Annexation Wall.” According to the grassroots group Stop the Wall, once completed, the wall would de facto annex some 46% of the West Bank, leaving many communities and even individual homes entirely surrounded by the wall and cut off from their own communities.
Mondoweiss spoke with Hassan Muamer about what the ruling means for the village and for Palestinians. Muamer previously worked with the Battir Landscape Ecomuseum, an initiative that aims to conserve Battir’s cultured environment and continue its sustainable use. He is now the project coordinator for the Bethlehem Development Foundation.
Can you explain what the recent court ruling means for Battir?
The ruling to not put up the wall was definitely a victory, but only for the moment. What it means is that we have more time. We know that maybe in another three or four years the army or the Israeli court will decide to start the case again, but if they attempt to change the decision they will have to start from the beginning with the process so it would take several years. So for the moment we have achieved a victory, but it is not final.
How do residents of Battir feel following the ruling?
Since yesterday afternoon when the announcement was made in the media people have been really excited. People I have talked to in the streets have been ecstatic about it, and many have been posting all over social media about it. People know it is a really big deal.
What would the construction of a wall mean for Battir?
If a wall were build through Battir it would affect us a lot.
First, it would mean a loss of 3,000 dunams of our land, about a third of the total area of the village. This is the rich agricultural land of the village, and Battir in particular is known for its farming and its produce.
Second, the construction of the wall would affect all the area around where they plan to build. It would destroy our irrigation system that dates back to the Roman time and is something that the village is known for. It would impact the environment and the diversity of the area. It would also affect people’s right to movement and their right to easily access their own land because it would divide people from their fields. People would not have been able to access their olive trees or their orchards, besides not being able to irrigate their land. This would all have an immediate affect on their man source of income because many of the people here depend on agriculture.
Why do you think Israel has decided against the wall at least for now?
I am not sure exactly why, but one thing is that their “security” argument was not strong enough. The struggle of the past three years of course helped as well. There were many court hearings between the village and the IDF and several times construction was delayed, including a few months ago in September. I think that the recognition of Battir as a world heritage site last June also helped, although one downside to this initiative was that it focused more on the land than on the people living on the land. This UNESCO status came out of a joint initiative from Palestinian, Jordanian, and Israeli environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth—Israel.
What has resistance looked like in Battir against the wall?
We have done a lot of things to resist the construction of the wall. Most recently we held a day of action on November 9, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. We wished to make a statement against the wall here in Palestine, and to say that all walls should fall. While people in Berlin were releasing white balloons into the air along the path of the old wall, hundreds of children and adults in Battir simultaneously released hundreds of white balloons into the air along the path of the proposed wall here, with messages of peace and hope written on them (see the video below to get a sense of the action).
Besides this we’ve been leading hiking tours around Battir to raise awareness of how the wall would affect the village.
Mostly though, I think the most important thing has been the activity of the farmers who resist by crossing the border [to the land that Israel has tried to separate them from] to get to their land 365 days a year, and the rest of the community that has supported them. By being active in the field they resist. By going daily to their land to irrigate or cultivate or to plant or renovate—this is part of their daily life activity and this is how they have been resisting for the last 67 years.
What do you think will happen next in Battir?
No one can guess. We will continue to do what we’ve been doing, to farm and support the farmers. We will develop more agricultural projects in the area. We will never abandon this land.
Do you think the ruling will have any implications for other villages that are struggling against the wall?
I think that the ruling will definitely give support to other villages in the area, especially those currently struggling against the encroachment of Israel such as the villages of Hassan, Wadi Fukin, and al-Walaja.
The recent ruling in Battir is a unique case so far and so I think this will encourage other Palestinians in the West Bank to continue to fight against the wall. This is a win not just for Battir, but for all Palestinians.