In West Bank, barrier threatens Roman terraces

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By DANIELLA CHESLOW, Associated Press

BATTIR, West Bank (AP) — One of the last Palestinian farming villages that still uses irrigation systems from Roman times says its ancient way of life is in danger as Israel prepares to lay down its West Bank separation barrier.

With construction possibly beginning in the coming weeks, the people of Battir hope a legal battle, backed by recent U.N. recognition of the village's agricultural practices, will help change Israel's mind.

Battir's 6,000 inhabitants live in limestone-faced houses built into a hillside southwest of Jerusalem. On the lands around the homes, stone retaining walls have transformed scrubby hills into orderly terraces of olive trees and vegetable gardens.

Terraces are a common Palestinian farming technique in the hilly West Bank terrain. But in Battir, they are unique for their extent — stretching uninterrupted over nearly 2,000 hectares (800 acres) — and for the centuries-old network of irrigation canals that direct springwater over the stepped hills.

This combination prompted the U.N.'s cultural agency, UNESCO, to award the village last year with a $15,000 prize for "Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes."

The canal network has been in place for 2,000 years, with residents continually keeping up the system, said Giovanni Fontana-Antonelli, a local UNESCO official. Because the area is largely untouched by construction, it is still possible to see "the form and the shape of the past generations' work," he said. "In other places you have terraces, but you also have urban sprawl, roads and settlements."

"The wall as projected so far will interfere with this ancient irrigation system by cutting part of the irrigation network," he said of the planned path for Israel's barrier. The integrity of the terraces "will be totally dismantled."

Israel began building the barrier in 2002 in response to a wave of deadly suicide bombings carried out by Palestinians who had entered from the West Bank. Set to stretch 815 kilometers (500 miles), it is about two-thirds complete, according to Shaul Arieli, a retired military officer who now advises the Supreme Court on the barrier.

Israelis say the structure is a main reason for the halt in suicide bombings in recent years. But Palestinians argue it is a pretext for Israel to steal their land.

Nearly 10 percent of the West Bank, which the Palestinians claim for a future state, will lie on the "Israeli" side of the barrier when it is complete. For this reason, construction on several stretches of the barrier have been delayed due to legal appeals.

Battir presents a particular challenge because the village's homes are in the West Bank while the fields are partially in Israel. This anomaly was enshrined in the 1949 cease-fire that ended Israel's war of independence.

According to current plans, the barrier will run close to the 1949 boundary and leave about 64 hectares (160 acres) of village lands on the Israeli side, according to the Israeli Defense Ministry.

Village council head Akram Bader estimates more than twice that amount of land will end up on the Israeli side. Bader, an architect, used Google Earth and land confiscation orders to calculate the higher figure. He said the Defense Ministry estimate fails to account for the West Bank land that will be gobbled up.

In 2007, Battir sued the state and Defense Ministry, demanding it change the route of the fence to protect the unique farming area.

In the legal documents, Israel claimed Battir is a tempting area for Palestinian attackers to penetrate Israel. The state also insisted on keeping control of a nearby rail line running from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, built before Israel's independence.

A Defense Ministry official said the barrier's planners have met with Battir's residents and tried to take their concerns into account. He said the barrier will not disrupt farming because an access gate will be open to Battir's farmers three times a day. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of ongoing legal proceedings.

Early this year, Battir suspended a challenge in Israel's Supreme Court so a separate advisory commission, under the Finance Ministry, could consider their request to cancel the expropriation of their farmland and reroute the barrier onto Israeli lands. The committee has not ruled.

In the meantime, defense officials say they plan to begin construction in the coming weeks. Battir's lawyer, Ghiath Nasser, said the village will seek a court order to block construction until the legal process is exhausted.

Palestinians have had mixed results in past court challenges.

Bilin, a village west of Ramallah, initially lost half its land to the barrier. But in 2007, the high court ordered the Israeli government to move Bilin's barrier westward toward Israel. It took three years before the government did so.

Many other villages have failed to change the barrier's path, such as Battir's neighbor Walajeh, where Israel is currently surrounding the village with a wall and fence on all sides.

In Battir, council head Bader said the planned fence will rise a few steps from the walls of the boys' school and slice across the soccer pitch. Besides that, the fence will likely devastate the ancient terracing and irrigation system, Bader said. He said he loses sleep at night with worry.

In early May, Battir inhabitants enjoyed the bounty of a wet winter as water rushed through the irrigation canals.

A man in a white traditional headdress washed his face in a gushing fountain at the village edge. Boys jumped into a hillside reservoir. Older men and women worked in the fields with antiquated tools.

Retired teacher Elayan Shami, 62, knelt in the soil planting the famous local eggplant, a mottled pink and white variety that ripens in July. Shami tended a small patch on a terrace where a maze of furrows directed the springwater.

"The fence will be a disaster for the water and the plants," Shami said. "It will cut the lands from the people and make us dependent on Israeli and outside markets. This is something no farmer can accept."

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