Terra Incognita: Battir-ing down the gates to UNESCO

With the Palestinians finally having a chance to suggest their own sites to UNESCO, it’s egregious that Battir was ever considered as their first choice.

Battir villiage 370 (photo credit: seth frantzman)
Battir villiage 370
(photo credit: seth frantzman)
The Palestinian Authority obtained a small victory Wednesday when The New York Times reported on the quest of a mid-size Palestinian village to obtain recognition as a World Heritage Site. The village of Battir is situated in the Refaim valley and in the last year a campaign has been waged to add its name to the 936 World Heritage Sites maintained by UNESCO. This was in wake of UNESCO’s decision to accept Palestine as a member state.
According to proponents of the idea in Israel, the PA and abroad, the village and the land around it represent an area of “outstanding universal value.” The Palestinian submission to UNESCO claims that it is “a historically sensitive area such as the ‘jenan’ or ‘gardens’ where a millenary irrigation system is still in use to water the vegetable gardens of Battir.”
The petition to UNESCO is viewed as urgent because of the claim that Israel is building a portion of its security fence through the area and that this will do irrevocable damage to the site. The petition is also in line with one of the factors that govern UNESCO sites: that it be “an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture.”
There is one problem. There is almost nothing about the site, or the claims that the security fence will damage it, that are in line with it being recognized as a place of great importance to the world, let alone even in the area of Jerusalem.
The propaganda element of Battir’s supposedly unique world important landscape was on display in Isabel Kershner’s New York Times article, which was titled “Palestinian Village Tries to Protect Landmark” (“Defending the soil, and heritage” in the International Herald Tribune). She narrated how “water flows through a Roman-era irrigation system... dotted with tombs and ruins of bygone civilizations.” According to her, “the experts say the Battir terraces are under imminent threat because Israel plans to build a section of its West Bank security barrier through the valley.” Giovanni Fontana Antonelli, who works for UNESCO in Ramallah, noted “if the wall goes through the valley, it will totally destroy the integrity of the site.” Kershner also quotes Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, saying “there are alternative ways to bring security without destroying 4,000 years of cultural heritage.” She writes of the “striking beauty of the area and its ancient system of cultivation.”
The story and apoplectic claims about what is going to happen, has been going on for a while. In 2005 Zafir Rinat wrote an article titled “A death sentence to this valley” in Haaretz. “The fence will wind along the edges of the Palestinian villages Walaja and Battir, and through the heart of the terraces worked by residents of the villages. It will cut them off from Jerusalem and will obliterate the landscape so characteristic of the region,” she claimed.
In May 2011 the village even won an award from UNESCO in Greece. Director-general Irina Bokova declared at the time, “In rewarding the management of...Battir, UNESCO wishes to raise awareness of these sites’ beauty and importance, of their tangible and symbolic values, so as to help avert threats to their continued preservation.”
THE REALITY is that the landscape of Battir is quite nice, but the claims to UNESCO are based solely on a personal dispute between the residents of Battir and the State of Israel. In 1922 the village’s population was only 542. It is situated in the cleft of a hill near Khirbet al-Yahud (‘The Jews’ ruin”), which is reputed to be the site of the last stand of the Jewish fighters of the Bar-Kochba revolt. The villagers farmed land around the village, but particularly down in the valley below them. It was in that valley of Refaim that the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway was constructed in 1892. The builders of the railway line felt the village was of enough importance to build a station there for the inhabitants. In 1949 after fighting drew to a close between Israel and the Jordanians, a special agreement was signed allowing the villagers to cross over the tracks, which run along the Green Line, and cultivate their fields, which were inside Israel. According to Barak Ravid of Haaretz, the villagers have claims to 740 acres lying across the Green Line.
The decision to complete the security fence in the area of the village, connecting it to fence portions in the Jerusalem and Bethlehem areas, would apparently cut the villagers off from this land. The villagers, who now number 4,200 people, are rightfully annoyed at this prospect. Local writer Ghassan Olayan said in Ma’an news “Battir’s ecological and environmental equilibrium will continue to be threatened and its residents denied the chance to enjoy their natural heritage and sustain the land.” But the real message of his article was that his village suffers from unemployment, and he wondered whether “the world has room for Battir village?” With the Palestinians finally having a chance to suggest their own sites to UNESCO, it’s egregious that Battir was ever considered as their first choice. It is proof that so much is political in this region and that immense pressure was brought to bear on PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his cultural experts. Yet it seems the PA has given up on pushing Battir as a site, and has chosen to push for recognition of Bethlehem’s nativity church. The church, of course, is a more logical site, as are any number of a hundred sites in the West Bank, all of which are of more interest, culturally and environmentally, than Battir.
Even if UNESCO wanted to recognize a unique rural settlement in the Palestinian areas, Battir wouldn’t be a good choice. The village has grown greatly in the last 30 years, so that the real threat to the traditional terraces is the sprawl of the houses, rather than any fence Israel might build. There are numerous other interesting and picturesque valleys that preserve traditional terrace agriculture throughout the area, on both sides of the Green Line, that are as interesting as Battir.
Furthermore, the claim that the fence will harm the terraces and historical tombs is nonsensical. The train tracks, not only their initial construction in 1892, but their modernization in the 1990s, take up an area as extensive as the fence would. Why are the tracks, and the road that runs alongside them, of marginal effect to the historical sites, but a fence alongside the tracks will ruin the entire area? Next year, when the political struggle has moved on from Battir, as it has from Bil’in and Nabi Salih and numerous other sites of weekly protests against Israel, the story will be that some new site is of “outstanding universal value” for UNESCO. Will it be Walaja or al- Khader or some other place? Wherever it is, it shouldn’t be forgotten how much political capital was plowed into making Battir out to be something that it wasn’t. It is a relatively pretty site that contains some historical elements which are present elsewhere and a group of people who feel they will not be compensated for lands that they have worked for generations that now may lie on Israel’s side of the fence.