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Opinion: Does the world have room for Battir village?

June 3, 2012 8:21 P.M. (Updated: June 8, 2012 12:58 A.M.)
By: Ghassan Olayan
Battir, a Palestinian village south west of Jerusalem, has a charming, rural landscape which was recently recognized by UNESCO with the Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes.

Battir also has had a unique agreement with Israel since 1949. The Rhodes Armistice Agreements, signed during the period of Jordanian rule over the West Bank, was implemented by Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan, Hassan Mustafa and six others from Battir village.

The agreement confirms that "Battir inhabitants will continue having ownership to their lands falling in the Jewish Territory."

But since that day Israel's military occupation and now the separation barrier have had devastating effects on the people and the land of Battir.

These detrimental effects are felt across the region, where human security is under constant threat and every aspect of life has been affected, including health, education, agriculture, employment and infrastructure.

The town has collectively experienced land expropriation, the destruction of agriculture, including olive and fruit trees that served as a source of income, settlement expansion, and isolation from other West Bank communities.

Other threats include the lack of urban networks and tools to mitigate the urban encroachment on the area, in particular landfills and Israeli dumps that pollute the earth and the precious water sources.

If the situation does not improve, 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.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has expressed its regret that the prevailing situation in Palestine is not conducive to the smooth and effective implementation of conservation programs.

It has called for a collective effort to safeguard Palestinian cultural and natural heritage and take measures to prevent further damage to these areas.

Battir, along with other cluster villages, boast long histories, religious and archeological sites as well as close proximity to some of the most beautiful landscapes in Palestine.

The area is dotted with fertile valleys and ridges, hand-carved terraces for the cultivation of olives, almonds, grapes and other fruit trees, and water springs and caves.

But the community of Battir, with a population of about 4,500 people, face severe social, economic and political realities.

As with all communities located in the so-called Areas B and C, Battir is under Israeli control. Due to the village's proximity to Israeli settlements, the Green Line and Jerusalem, land confiscation is a constant threat.

To illustrate this point, Battir received five Israeli military orders to seize villages lands between 2004 and 2011.

The majority of this land is natural open space, including forest and agricultural land, which is the basic source of livelihood for the inhabitants. Battir was known in the past as the bread basket for the population of both Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

During the last decades, up to 65 percent of the work force relied on the Israeli labor market for employment. But since the second intifada even this source of employment has dropped drastically.

For Palestinians, work in Israel is not a stable source of income, as it is dependent on political factors, such as the procurement of hard-to-get permits and access. The unemployment rate in the village has risen to 40 percent.

Palestinian youth face a particularly difficult set of challenges. The high drop-out rates and poor quality of education in the area have ultimately led to increasing unemployment, criminal behavior and drug-use among youth.

Upon receiving a sub-standard education, local Palestinian students emerge into a world of responsibilities with an unsteady sense of self, ill-equipped to deal with the challenges they face in a complex conflict setting.

Israelis claim security reasons and fear of survival for their oppressive and racist policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. Even a binding UN agreement made 64 years ago is ignored, as if Israelis themselves were not signatories to it.

Israel's insistence on building the separation wall in Battir, ignoring all international agreements, and destroying the finest and oldest terracing for agriculture and irrigation system in the world -- these are not the best ways to solve Israeli existential fears.

As the monk of the nearby Mar Saba monastery is famed to have said to a lion that tried to attack him: "There is always a place for more than one." He lived in harmony with the lion in a single cave until they both died.

Fear and aggression do not bring security, and justice is the only key to peace. If what is spent on war were spent on fighting poverty and ignorance, the world would be safer, calmer and more just for everyone.

Occupiers will not enjoy peace until they commit themselves to justice, acknowledge and respect the rights of the indigenous population and end the occupation. Occupation cannot and will not last forever.

The day will come when Palestinians will be free and masters of their own destiny. The sooner Israel admits its part in the dispossession and oppression of Palestinians, the better for the whole world.

Ghassan Olayan is a Palestinian writer from Battir village.
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