The cabinet on Sunday is set to debate the rerouting of 3 kilometers of the security barrier in the Gush Etzion near Battir, a World Heritage Site.
It is reviewing the barrier’s route at the order of the High Court of Justice, in a move that forces the government to make a public stand on a contentious diplomatic issue that has been mostly dormant in recent years, the West Bank security barrier.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice at the Hague issued a non-binding advisory opinion, asserting that construction of the barrier over the pre-1967 lines was illegal.
Israel designed the barrier to prevent the type of suicide bombings that killed more than a thousand people during the second intifada. It refused to heed the ICJ ruling, which it believes is legally flawed and the result of a biased process.
But the pace of construction has been slow and 12 years after its inception, only 62% of the barrier’s 712-kilometer route has been completed, according to the United Nations. Among the uncompleted sections is the barrier’s route in the Gush Etzion region, including a three-kilometer stretch that was approved in 2006.
The route runs through national park lands of the Nahal Refaim Valley and the ancient agricultural terraces of the Palestinian village of Battir, which are more than 2,000 years old. The village is also the site of Bar Kochba’s final battle against the Romans.
Palestinians, settlers, and environmentalists oppose the route and petitioned the High Court of Justice against it. Palestinians oppose the barrier in principle, because they believe it is a land grab, and have also objected to this three-kilometer stretch.
In hopes of blocking construction of the barrier near Battir, the Palestine Liberation Organization sought help from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, whose World Heritage Committee registered the village’s ancient terraces in June to the “state of Palestine.”
The Palestinians, the Gush Etzion Regional Council, and environmental groups, have all petitioned the High Court.
On July 29th the court ordered the government to review the issue by October 2, particularly in light of the diplomatic implications of Battir’s new status as a World Heritage Site. It noted a review was also needed because over the last eight years the route was altered for environmental and quality of life reasons.
The Defense Ministry’s legal expert, Ahaz Ben-Ari, has advised the government that it could reauthorize the barrier.
“The High Court of Justice’s order to reroute the security barrier in the area of the village of Battir in light of UNESCO’s decision does not stem from legal issues resulting in the recognition of the Battir terraces as a World Heritage Site, but rather from the diplomatic questions connected to the topic,” Ben-Ari said.
“There is no legal obstacle to authorizing [the barrier’s route], especially given that in response to legal proceedings before the court the route has been changed to reduce harm to the environment and the landscape,” Ben-Ari wrote. He added that the state has also promised to preserve the quality of life of the Palestinians living in Battir.
The IDF has said that the barrier is needed to complete the security ring around Jerusalem to prevent suicide bombing attacks. A Defense Ministry spokesman said that the barrier’s design solely affects security and would not harm the terraces of Battir.
Israel’s branch of Friends of the Earth Middle East warned that there are both environmental and diplomatic implications to moving the barrier.
“Israel will be seen as not honoring international agreements and spur a wave of severe condemnations on the part of its important allies in the international community,” said FEME Israel director Gidon Bromberg.
“This could easily be avoided,” he said.
The organization’s attorney, Michael Sfard, said that it is possible for the IDF to create a non-physical barrier in the area with cameras and sensors.
“Any physical barrier would harm and actually destroy the site. It is the only place in the world where you can go and see biblical methods of agriculture. It’s like a living museum,” Sfard said.
The barrier route at present would also separate the villagers of Battir from their farm land, he said.
Director of the Kfar Etzion field school Yaron Rosenthal said the barrier would break a long-standing agreement between the state and the residents of the village that they would be free to work their land.
The barrier was conceived in response to the second intifada, he noted, but since then the threat of suicide bombings had significantly dropped without building this loop in the barrier.
For Rosenthal and settlers in the Gush Etzion region, the cabinet vote on the Battir stretch of the barrier is an opportunity for them to lobby against construction of 45 kilometers of the fence in their region.
Efrat Local Council head Oded Ravivi said the route would turn Gush Etzion into an island, connected to the rest of Israel by only a narrow corridor. It would be particularly problematic for his settlement, because it would cut off an unbuilt area where he hopes one day to build thousands of homes.
Gush Etzion Regional Council head Davidi Perl said that the planned route also places land outside the barrier which is assumed to become part of Israel’s final borders in any permanent agreement.
This includes, he said, large portions of new project, Gva’ot, where his council hopes to build a new West Bank city.
The Defense Ministry last month reclassified that property as state land to pave the way for future building, but now the government intends to approve a barrier route that excludes the bulk of that project, he said. He has since been lobbying government ministers to reject the proposed route.