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Separation wall targets Bethlehem's oldest artefacts

On Wednesday, the Israeli judiciary will address two cases concerning the fate of the separation wall in two southern towns in the occupied West Bank. The first is Battir, famous for its ancient and unique irrigation system dating back to the Roman era; and the second is the Cremsian Valley. If the judiciary approves the plan to expand and construct the separation wall in Battir, which is west of Bethlehem, the wall will annex Palestinian farmlands to Israel and the historical irrigation system will be harmed. If plans to extend the wall in the Cremsian Valley are approved, it will annex Palestinian agricultural land and divide a Christian monastery that has existed there since 1891.

The Israeli Ministry of Defence, in charge of the Israeli army, insists that the wall, which it began building in 2002 during the second intifada, is essential to Israeli security. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, only 15 per cent of the wall is built along the Green Line, which is recognised by the international community as Israel’s border. The remaining eighty-five per cent of the separation wall is in the West Bank, annexing 9.4 per cent of Palestinian territory to Israel. The Israeli Supreme Court is scheduled to discuss its decision to expand the wall in Battir on Wednesday.

The scenic village of Battir is located on the UN armistice line that was set in 1949 and overlooks the famous Jaffa-Jerusalem train line. The people of Battir were given permission to cultivate their land in exchange for preserving the railway. Two-thirds of Battir is located inside of the West Bank while the remaining one-third is located inside Israel.

The mayor of Battir, Akram Badr, made the following statement to Agence France-Presse in regards to the wall and its potential expansion: “The expansion of the wall will damage parts an ancient irrigation system that we have had for more than 2,500 years and it will also damage ancient Roman stone terraces in our village.”

Villagers in Battir enjoy economic privileges granted to them by the Israeli Environmental and Park Authority, which has said that Israel’s continued expansion and construction of the wall will lead to irreversible damage to Battir’s historical artefacts. The Israeli Ministry of Defence plans to expand the separation wall to Battir’s town limits, a decision that will annex Palestinian farmlands and a school playground. International environmental groups, together with the people of Battir, have undergone rigorous efforts to prevent the wall’s expansion in Battir.

Dr Nader Khateeb, the president of the Palestine branch of Friends of The Earth Middle East, an organisation that presented a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court to stop the separation wall, has said that: “Battir is classified among one of Palestine’s world heritage sites. It is a town that brings together an ancient irrigation system and a number of stone terraces dating back to the Roman era. The expansion of the wall will destroy this area and damage world heritage that dates back to thousands of years ago.”

As for the Israeli Ministry of Defence, they denied claims that expanding the wall will damage the irrigation system. The statement maintained that: “The Ministry of Defence values the protection of all human life and the environment; however, the ministry remains first and foremost committed to preserving the security and safety of Israeli citizens.”

The ministry issued a report that suggested “the projected expansion of the wall will be reoriented in order to avoid impacting the irrigation system as much as possible,” also noting that, “the first rows of ancient stone terraces (those located near the railway) will be affected but the irrigation system will not be impacted.”

The court will also address on Wednesday its decision to expand the wall in the Cremsian Valley, located a few kilometres away from Battir. For decades, Christians from Beit Jala and Bethlehem have worked with their Muslim neighbours in the Cremsian Valley’s vast territory, and they often go home to their respective cities to have family picnics on the weekends. However, the expansion of the separation wall will separate farmers from their lands and place the Cremsian Valley on the Israeli side. Many residents say that this is a deliberate measure aimed at grabbing Palestinian lands.

The wall will also divide the Salesian Monastery, which runs famous vineyards that produce wine from the Holy Land for mass services, placing monks on the Israeli side while the nunnery will remain on the Palestinian side. Annika Hennlan, a spokesperson for the St Yves Monastery, which is also being threatened with separation, says that the wall will “cut off monks from the monastery by placing them on the Israeli side of the barrier.”

Father Ibrahim Shomali, a priest from Beit Jala, says that the construction of the wall is “a threat to all of Beit Jala’s residents, both Christian and Muslims alike”. However, he stressed that, “the biggest impact will be on Christian families because 99 per cent of Beit Jala’s land is owned by a total of 58 Christian families.”

“This may prompt Christians to migrate elsewhere because once they lose their land, they will have nothing else to stay here for,” Shomali added.

The Israeli Ministry of Defence confirmed that it has taken all requests of the parties affected by the separation wall into consideration, but did not provide any further details. The ministry issued a simple statement on Tuesday claiming that: “The decision to expand the security fence in Beit Jala is one that is based entirely on security considerations. Without this portion of the wall, Jerusalem will remain exposed and weak.”

Bishops affiliated with a Holy Land coordination group issued a statement saying that plans to expand the separation wall in the Cremsian Valley “should be abandoned”, noting that the wall’s route “deviates greatly from the Green Line”.

The statement continued: “We are deeply concerned that the plan to expand this security wall is aimed more towards promoting settlement expansion, in addition to permanently separating Beit Jala from Jerusalem.”

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