Battir has been in the news recently because the separation wall Israel has been building the last few years now threatens to destroy the unique character of this Palestinian village in the West Bank.
Remarkably, both the Guardian and The Washington Post recently published articles outlining the damage the wall would cause to Battir’s distinctive social and ecological system, its Roman-era terraces, water system and agriculture, and the people who have cared for them for innumerable generations. These articles follow determined efforts by the village’s inhabitants, and local organizations to raise the alarm over this latest plan for vandalism by the Israeli occupation (“West Bank barrier plan threatens ancient farming landscape,” The Washington Post, 23 December 2012; “Israeli separation barrier threatens Battir’s ancient terraces,” the Guardian, 11 December 2012).
Battir happens to be my birthplace as well as the site of my childhood memories. At my old age I forgot much of my past experience, having had the chance to travel and live for extended periods abroad, but I’ve forgotten nothing of my early years in Battir, where I attended primary school, experienced unparalleled community life, suffered severe hardships, was forced to temporarily escape with the rest of the village folks in the 1948 war and to finally be separated from my home in the 1967 War.
Most history books describe the village situated in a few miles southwest of Jerusalem, as the site of the final defeat of the Jewish Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans (132-136 CE) and that it was inhabited during the Byzantine and the Islamic periods.
The village is built on two high mountain slopes that face each other at an angle. The lower part of both slopes is made up of beautifully terraced orchards that village people used over the centuries for planting all kinds of vegetables where irrigation from the village spring was possible, or summer fruit trees that did not need irrigation.
Out of a large assortment of vegetables the “Battiri eggplant” has been distinguished worldwide for its taste and quality, and throughout Palestine and Jordan its name is known. In 2011, Battir won the 2011 Melina Mercouri Prize from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, for its “cultural landscape.”
The village used to supply the market in Jerusalem with large amounts of special kinds of grapes, olives, figs, apples, apricots, pears and peaches, as well as varied seasonal vegetables all year round. Village women walked to the market in the Old City of Jerusalem for hours with large baskets on their heads to sell their produce. Other means such as mules and donkeys were used to transport the goods when such animals were available.
One hilltop overlooking most of the village houses is referred to in history books as “Khirbet al-Yahoud,” the Jewish Ruins. It is also recognized as such by the villagers. There are no visible ruins on the hill that is mostly planted by olive and other summer trees. Often people dug for and found old coins that brought them handsome return at antique dealers in Jerusalem.
The village slopes face west, and are separated from the opposing mountain slopes by the valley in which the Palestine railway connecting Jerusalem to the coast and further to Egypt via Sinai was built. Trains stopped at the Battir railway station to collect or discharge passengers and to refill the steam locomotives with water. The station was a very lively site surrounded by greenery and fruit trees. It was also bustling with life and activity, with the school village nearby and the few buildings housing station offices and operations personnel.
That chapter of the village history was seriously interrupted when the ethnic cleansing of Palestine began in 1947. The railway stopped operating and the Battir station was destroyed. The village itself was not occupied but became uninhabitable while under constant Jewish fire from the opposing occupied hills. When the 1949 truce was agreed Battir was safely on the Arab side, including the railway section crossing the village valley.
As the armistice lines were delineated there was a trick, for which Battir is paying the heavy price 65 years later.
At the time, and because most of the Palestine railway from Jerusalem to the coast was under Israel’s control, except for the Battir sector, a proviso was included in the Jordan-Israel armistice agreement allowing Israel to extend the armistice line 200 yards east, within unoccupied village land, to run parallel to the railway line, on the grounds that that was necessary to provide security protection for the railway which Israel intended to use.
The village inhabitants were assured that they would not be separated from their farming land and houses including the school which fell behind the barbed wire on the Israeli side. That overlapping worked well — with some tragic incidents — until 1967 when the entire West Bank was occupied. The barbed wire, which was built across the village in 1949, did not last long and soon disappeared. The Israelis never restored it.
Apparently it did not disappear as an established practical fact, and the Israelis are now using it as grounds for building the separation wall. If the wall plan continues, it will destroy the village as many world reports warn. It will destroy the physical as well as the human character of a community that lived in peace and harmony for centuries.
As a native of that great village, who only visited once for a few days since 1966, I feel deep pain at the ongoing devastation. But as one who lived the deeper pain of seeing the entire history of Palestine destroyed, as one who experienced the massive international injustice that befell the Palestinian people, and as one who witnesses the hypocrisy and the silence of the civilized world in front of an ongoing Israeli aggression, I see the Battir story as a detail. Battir is a victim of this monstrous atrocity but by no means the only victim.
The wall is illegal and wrong, not only when it divides and destroys Battir. Battir, if it suffers this terrible fate, will be only the latest of a long line of villages including Bilin, Nilin and Nabi Saleh, where Palestinians are struggling to keep hold of their land.
The occupation is wrong too. The eradication of the Palestinian people is wrong and so is the colonization of the Palestinian and the other Arab lands. There are more wrongs than the wall. We must be constantly reminded that we should see the forest not just the tree, even when the tree is one that we have grown up with and love.
Hasan Abu Nimah is a former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This essay first appeared in The Jordan Times and is republished with the author’s permission.