Renewed Barrier Construction Threatens Palestinian Heritage

Palestinian communities in the West Bank have expressed alarm at widely reported news that Israel will resume the construction of its ‘separation wall’ after a five-year delay.

“It is a crime to build the wall through here,” said Akram Badir, head of the village council in Battir, a Palestinian community just outside the Green Line to the southeast of Jerusalem. “It is going to be a catastrophe,” he went on, pointing out the planned route along nearby railway tracks.

Battir is the site of an ancient system of irrigation that has provided freshwater for the community’s rich agriculture for centuries. From an old Roman pool, the water flows downhill from terrace to terrace and is then distributed to farmlands through channels.

“If the wall is built across the terraces as planned, they will collapse,” said Giath Nasser, the lawyer dealing with Battir’s legal case against the planned barrier route.

Some 62 percent of the barrier’s 708km-long route is already complete, while a further 8 percent is under construction and 30 percent is planned but not yet constructed. The barrier has so far isolated 150 communities from their land, and some 7,500 Palestinians stuck between the Green Line and the barrier need special permits to be allowed to remain in their homes, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice called on Israel to cease construction of the barrier, to dismantle or re-route the sections already completed, and to repeal the gate and permit regime. A decision adopted at the recent 36th session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization session further urged all parties to preserve the terraced landscape of Battir, a site of “Palestinian cultural and natural heritage”.

Israel contends that the barrier is necessary for security reasons.

Looking Ahead

Construction of the barrier has been on hold, mainly as a result of financial problems and legal appeals against the planned route by Israeli and Palestinian civil society.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense told IRIN that construction might resume after the necessary authorization is granted both by the High Court of Justice and committees in the Finance Ministry that deal with the expropriation of lands along the barrier’s route.

Work on the barrier is expected to resume first in the areas surrounding Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in particular around the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, where Battir is located.

The exact number of communities that will be affected once construction restarts is difficult to estimate because legal procedures are still underway to determine the final route. However, there are at least 50 Palestinian communities adjacent to sections of the barrier not yet constructed that OCHA lists as affected, meaning either that land or water resources will be cut off, or that the community will become isolated from its surroundings.

Challenging the Barrier

“The barrier around Battir is on the Green Line so Israel shouldn’t have legal problems [resuming construction there]. However, its impact on the community will be especially severe and would involve the loss of an historical site,” Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman of the Israeli NGO B’Tselem, told IRIN.

“The solution is simple,” Nasser said. “Build the wall on the Israeli side of the railway track.” This way, he added, the villagers would have continued access to about 300 hectares of land used for agriculture important to their livelihoods.

“I know that this doesn’t make me rich, but I am selling vegetables in Jerusalem once every week,” said an elderly woman picking mint on her family’s land on the Israeli side of the tracks. “It’s my income.”

The effect that the barrier has on farmers has been widely documented, as UNRWA reports farmers impacted by the wall usually face drops in their annual harvest of up to 60 percent.

Legal complaints like Battir’s were often accompanied by popular protests in other villages, which, in cases like in Budrus and Bil’in, eventually succeeded in moving the barrier.

“We want to solve this issue in the peaceful way, in the courts,” Badir said, adding: “If you cut the land of Battir with a wall, you destroy the peace, the cultural heritage and our economy.”

Public Support for the Barrier

When then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the plan to build the West Bank barrier in 2002, it was widely supported as a response to a wave of suicide bombings by Palestinians against Israeli civilians during the Second Intifada. In October 2003, the barrier was backed with 83 percent support among a sample of Jewish Israelis, according to The Peace Index, an ongoing survey mapping Israeli opinion on issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Security remains the main reason the Israeli government endorses the barrier. “The fence is built only for reasons of security. Before the terror, there was no fence. It was a reaction, a reaction against terror,” Josh Hantman, spokesman of the Israeli Ministry of Defence, told IRIN.

“A majority still believes that the barrier was responsible for the improvement in the security situation, and not steps taken by the Palestinians,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli public opinion expert and analyst. But Israelis would also support the barrier for other reasons, she said. “The basic feeling among (Jewish) Israelis remains that separation is the only way for a regular life here.”

In the last survey Scheindlin conducted in 2007, 59 percent of Jewish Israelis believed the barrier had improved the security situation, but 31 percent said that the barrier makes the situation more difficult for Palestinians and could ultimately worsen security.

While the Israeli government has highlighted in the past that the barrier drastically reduced Palestinian attacks in Israel, media reports and OCHA pointed out that some 15,000 Palestinians continued to enter Israel without permits on a daily basis in 2011, suggesting other factors contribute to the reduced violence.

Even the Israeli army’s chief architect of the barrier’s route, Danny Tirza, recently said that the reduction in attacks and sense of security restored in Israel cannot be attributed solely to the barrier, but “has been achieved through the combined efforts of all the parties concerned.”


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