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In West Bank, barrier threatens Roman terraces

Associated Press Modified: May 11, 2012 at 2:17 am •  Published: May 11, 2012
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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."