Middle East

West Bank villages' fate rests on key Israeli court ruling

Village of Battir as seen from the agricultural land in the valley
Image caption Battir in the Bethlehem governorate has been proposed as a UNESCO world heritage site

Israel's Supreme Court is soon expected to make its final decisions on the route of two sections of the controversial barrier being built in and around the West Bank.

One is in Battir, a Palestinian village that is famous for maintaining a Roman-era terraced irrigation system for its agriculture.

The other is in Cremisan in Beit Jala where the land belongs to 58 Christian families and the Catholic Church.

Israel says the barrier is essential for security but Palestinians see it as a land grab.

Both cases before the court are within the Bethlehem governorate and have brought many petitions by locals and activists.

Battir, which has been proposed as a UNESCO world heritage site, straddles the 1949 armistice line, south of Jerusalem.

Much of the international community identifies the boundary, also known as the Green Line, as the de facto border of Israel. Here it runs along an Ottoman-built railway line.

Two-thirds of Battir lies in Palestinian territory but the other third falls inside Israel across the rail track.

Image caption The water irrigation system in Battir dates back to Roman times

The ancient channels in the village carry water from a natural spring down stone terraces to vegetable gardens and orchards.

Produce sales and tourism are important sources of income for the population of about 5,000 people.

"Battir is a typical Palestinian village and it's very old. We have many layers of history here from the Canaanite, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic times. Many civilisations passed through and left their mark," says Akram Badr, head of the village council.

"Our irrigation system is 2,500 years old and local people have maintained the ancient terraces. We are trying to conserve this area and protect it from damage where the Israeli defence ministry wants to build a wall."

Unusual opposition

Many environmental groups including Friends of the Earth Middle East - which has Israeli members - are against building the barrier in Battir.

In an unprecedented step an Israeli government agency, the Nature and Parks Authority, has also expressed its opposition.

Construction of the barrier began in 2002 during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, following a wave of suicide bombings inside Israel. It is now approximately 440km (273 miles) long.

Israel's defence ministry denies that the terraces in Battir will be harmed by the barrier and says residents will retain access to the agricultural plots.

"In planning the route in Battir, the security establishment has done its utmost to minimise any damage, but cannot accept the request to annul the physical fence, which is the basic component of the security barrier, or build a fence that would leave the railroad tracks to Jerusalem outside the fence," it said in a statement.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Father Ibrahim Shomali holds a mass in the Cremisan valley

Nearby in Beit Jala, the planned route of the barrier - expected to be an 8m (25 foot) high concrete wall - will cut off Palestinians' access to another green area and popular beauty spot in the Bethlehem district, the Cremisan valley.

It will affect hundreds of children attending a primary school run by nuns and the jobs of workers at the Cremisan monastery and winery.

Every week a Catholic parish priest, Father Ibrahim Shomali, has been conducting an open-air mass on the hillside as a form of peaceful protest against the wall.

The last was held on Friday. Father Ibrahim said he prayed for justice.

"We have asked everyone for help but it seems that nobody wants to listen. We have a just cause, it is about our land, it is about our presence, it is about our dignity, about our faith and about our future," he said.

"But the world remains passive to Israeli actions. That's why we decided to ask the one who always listens, God, to strengthen our work for a just peace that will grant the future our community deserves in our free country."

Many in Beit Jala believe the primary aim of this section of barrier is to link the nearby Jewish settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo, both built on land that originally belonged to their town.

Settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

Image caption Israel continues to build its separation barrier in and around the West Bank

The Israeli defence ministry maintains that: "the route of the security fence in the Beit Jala region is based purely on security".

"This portion of the fence is part of the Jerusalem section and is there purely to keep terror out of Jerusalem. Without this section of the fence, Jerusalem remains open and vulnerable," it said.

"During the last five years, the remaining gaps have been used as natural entries for illegal infiltrators - and in some cases terrorists - to enter Jerusalem."

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and other Christian religious figures plan to go to Israel's Supreme Court for the hearings on Wednesday.

It is possible that the court will give its final rulings on the same day.

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