On the 31st of August, a group of forty people participated in a tour jointly arranged by FoEME and the Jerusalem-based NGO Ir Amim, in the Palestinian villages of Walajeh and Battir. The visit was meant to raise awareness on the need to protect a unique cultural and heritage landscape, threatened by the Separation Barrier.
Battir is a small Palestinian village, nested along the hills a few kilometers South of Jerusalem, surrounded by traditionally irrigated, beautiful terraces, full of eggplants, peppers and olive trees. Some decades ago, the train to Jerusalem used to stop in Battir; next to the railway are the unique remains of the Ottoman train station, which was the spot of a busy vegetables market back then. Although there is no longer a market, the vegetables production is still flourishing around the village, thanks to its exceptional irrigation system, which is more than 3000 years old. Following the water channels down from one of the main pools to the small plots on the hillsides, we walked back through history and one of the most ancient examples of agricultural structures. The pool system captures some of the ephemeral natural springs. The water is then distributed among the terraces according to a complex 8 day cycle, to insure an appropriate amount of water for every family. Farmers successively open and close the stone channels with rocks and fabrics, diverting the flow to their plots.
While other villages, both in the Israeli and Palestinian side, have long abandoned this traditional farming system, Battir’s inhabitants are proud of their cultural heritage and struggle to maintain it. In 1949, they obtained a special agreement allowing them to continue cultivating their land situated in Israeli territory, just across the railway and the “green line” – the Israeli government recognized the importance of preserving such a specific landscape. Battir has successfully carried the responsibility of preventing any security incident along the railway, and so has also became an example for peace. Today, its people are opposing the Separation Barrier that is planned in the valley, which threaten the integrity of the site, making the access to some of the terraces much more complicated for the farmers.
Within the framework of the Good Water Neighbors Project, FoEME partners with the Battir Village Council to protect the landscape. An extensive mapping of the 554,000 linear meters of terraces has been conducted, and the village has launched restoration and development activities with the help of the UNESCO office in Ramallah. In 2011, Battir has received from UNESCO the Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes. Beautiful stony houses have been rehabilitated: one hosts the Battir Landscape Eco-Museum, and a guesthouse will open in the next weeks. FoEME’s Neighbors Path around Wadi Fukin has been extended last year to Battir, and to date some 3,000 people have navigated the trail, learning about the communities, the unique cultural landscape and the larger geopolitical complexities of the area.
The Good Water Neighbors communities from both sides of the border, Battir, Walajeh and other Western Bethlehem villages and the Mateh Yehuda regional council, are seeking to develop a transboundary master plan to protect their landscape, develop green economies and cross-border ecotourism. While Palestinians and Israelis are working together to build better on-the-ground cooperation based on a joint cultural identity, the planned Separation Barrier threatens their efforts. The barrier’s construction is still under debate around Battir: the villagers have petitioned the Supreme Court in Israel to stop the plan, and they recently received the support of the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority, who are calling for alternative security measurements instead of a physical barrier. Public opinion and intervention is crucial to win this battle for the protection of an outstanding eco-cultural site which lies at the heart of the people’s regional heritage.
This post has been written by FoEME intern Amélie Joseph. Amélie holds a MA in agronomy and environment and is working with FoEME on water-related issues in agriculture, in Tel Aviv office. To read more about the unique history and heritage of Battir read this past blog entry.