The Palestinian village of Battir sits between Bethlehem and Jerusalem on the 1949 Armistice Line. Ancient agricultural features and aqueducts are built into the surrounding hillside.
The village has recently become the site of controversy, as Israel wishes to build a part of the inner section of the Separation Wall through it, thereby destroying the historic farmland.
The Separation Wall was first erected by Israel in 2002 and cuts the West Bank off from Israeli territory. Israel argues that closing this gap in the wall is essential for the security of those living in Jerusalem but the residents of Battir have fought the plan, petitioning the Israeli High Court and bidding for Unesco status to prevent the wall being built.
The ancient aqueducts of Battir date back to Roman and Byzantine times, channelling water to unique tiered agricultural land, where the residents say they have farmed the same way for thousands of years.
“It’s not the right of us, Palestinians or Israelis, to destroy it. It’s the right of humanity to protect it," says Hassan Muamer, 27, a civil engineer who has lived in Battir his entire life.
The Israeli Defence Force, charged with building the wall, has proposed alternatives, including tunnels and agricultural gates. But the residents have said no, saying that once the wall is built, it will have destroyed something that can never be replaced.
A network of cameras to prevent anyone crossing into Jerusalem illegally overlooks the valley, which forms one of the few gaps in the Separation Wall. Muamer argues that no one attempts to sneak in for fear of endangering their case.
“The issue is that if you are in the fields with the olives and things, it’s OK but if you start climbing to the other side, then they know and they send military jeeps to arrest you because you are crossing into Israel illegally," he says. "So we know the limits. We know where our land is and we don’t go further.”
Lengthy negotiations in the Israeli High Court lasting years led the villagers to believe that Unesco status would help their case.
Muamer explains why the villagers have chosen a legal route, rather than that of villages such as Bil’in, who have held weekly demonstrations against the presence of the Separation Wall.
“Only Battiri citizens are allowed to go to this area and to cross the railway track," he explains. "If I start bringing foreigners and demonstrations it will not achieve my point at all. We want to have…let’s call it a scientific methodology, something that we can put on the table and discuss it, with maps, plans, to say we are working on this land, and we own it this way.”
The village is also unique in that the petition at the Israeli High Court has garnered the support from the Israeli National Parks Authority. A separate petition arguing against the plan has also been filed by the nearby settlement of Beitar Illit.
But the villagers have not collaborated with the settlers:
“The settlers are not against building the wall because it could affect the beauty of the area, they are against building it in this place in particular because it would prevent them from expanding the settlement, which will also impact on us,” village council elder Hussein Butmeh points out.
The panel about whether Battir will receive status as a World Heritage Site by Unesco will be convened in Paris in June. In the meantime, the villagers are waiting for a separate decision by the Israeli High Court.
“We have petitioned for international support, and even support within Israel, but even if this came to nothing, we are determined to keep fighting this," declared another village elder, Eleyain Shami. "There is no alternative for us.”