West Bank barrier threatens villagers' way of life

Anthropologists say Battir and its lands should be given protected status

Israel is being urged to reroute its controversial West Bank barrier away from the lands of an ancient Palestinian village with a unique agricultural system. The BBC's Wyre Davies visited Battir, whose inhabitants fear their traditional way of life will disappear.

In this part of the world, the supply and control of water is a major logistical and political issue. Yet the quaint village of Battir must be one of the luckiest and most blessed communities around - because Battir has water in abundance.

For more than 2,000 years, seven natural springs have given life to the village and its fields. Children still play, almost incongruously, in an old Roman bath built centuries ago at the spot, in the middle of the village, where one of the springs emerges.

Start Quote

Akram Badir

The land is everything to us... Without our land we are nothing”

End Quote Akram Badir Head of Batir village council

The simple irrigation system used today is as it was in ancient times. Water is shared between Battir's eight main extended families. A simple system of manually diverting water via sluice gates means that fruit and vegetables from the small plots on the lower slopes are renowned for their freshness and quality.

Built on the side of a steep hill just to the south of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank, Battir also boasts land arranged as traditional terrace agriculture. But this is a system and a landscape that is under threat from Israel's controversial barrier.

The exact route of this section of the barrier has yet to be finalised. But if, as thought, it is built along the valley floor below the village it will cut off Battir and its terraces from much of its ancestral lands. And, because of the unique irrigation system, villagers say those lands will be lost forever.

Green Line

Akram Badir is head of the village council. He is a successful businessman in his own right, but has spent much of his time in recent months mounting a legal challenge in the Israeli courts to the planned routing of the barrier.

Man changes the water supply channel on a aqueduct in Battir Water is manually diverted via a system of aqueduct and sluice gates

Even though he knows his chances of success are slim, Badir says he cannot give up.

West Bank barrier

  • Total length is 708 km (440 miles), more than twice the length of the 1949 Armistice Line (Green Line) between Israel and West Bank
  • About 61.8% of the barrier is complete; a further 8.2% is under construction and 30% is planned but not yet constructed
  • When completed, only about 15% of the barrier will be constructed on the Green Line or in Israel, isolating 9.4% of the West Bank

Source: UN 2011

"The land is everything to us," he says. "Without our land we are nothing. It's been this way for centuries and our lives will disappear if the wall is built here."

At least 30% of Battir's lands lie on the Israeli side of the so-called Green Line, the generally recognised pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank.

The Arab villagers of Battir were allowed to keep their lands after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war in return for preventing damage to a railway which runs through the valley floor.

But Israel's controversial barrier is getting close. Just up the hill from Battir, huge concrete slabs are going up - on occupied Palestinian territory - around the village of Walaja. It leaves swathes of village lands cut off on the other side of the wall.

Despite their long-standing agreement, villagers and campaigners fear the Israeli authorities plan to build the barrier along their valley floor, separating the villagers of Battir from their lands.

Gates

Giovanni Sontana, an anthropologist with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) says that to build the barrier here would destroy a traditional way of life.

Battir village terrace agriculture Israel's defence ministry said villagers would still be able to access their lands

"There are few, if any, places left in the immediate region where such a traditional method of agriculture remains, not only intact, but as a functioning part of the village," he said as we walked through olive groves that have not changed for as long as anyone can remember.

Keeping the village of Battir and its lands intact would require Israel to do something it has not done thus far - to build part of the barrier on its own territory.

Declining requests for an interview, the Israeli defence ministry said in a statement that the routing of the barrier is based purely on security considerations and that potential damage to the area would be minimised.

Villagers, the statement said, would have access to their lands through special gates (operated by Israeli security personnel) in the wall or fence.

The residents of Battir certainly do not feel lucky or blessed, as the future of the village hangs in the balance. Many fear that a way of life that has prevailed here pretty much without change for hundreds of years is about to be swept away.

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