On the outskirts of Bethlehem, the small village of Battir has galvanised the creativity, agricultural history and environmental activism of its community to create a unique and sustainable resistance in the face of ongoing Israeli occupation.
Wissam Oweinh sits on the terrace of a restaurant overlooking the village of Battir near Bethlehem. We sit at a table high above the ancient Roman field terraces tumbling down to a railway track running along the bottom of the valley below.
The Terraces Café was once a landfill site, cleared by a team of local volunteers from Battir and re-purposed into a café serving organically grown food from local farmers. Wissam has just finished his morning’s work as a tour guide for a large group of tourists who passed us on their way out looking relaxed and ready to board a coach for an afternoon drive in the West Bank.
Visitors to the village pass a Roman pool, an ancient irrigation system watering the fertile terraced fields where information boards tell the story of this creative and resourceful community. A film playing in the art gallery and information centre shows how the people of Battir worked together to save the village from destruction more than seventy years ago.
Roman pool in the village of Battir
1946: The resistance begins in Battir
Between 1st June 1946 and 15th May 1948, many hundreds of Palestinian villages were destroyed by Israeli forces during the establishment of the new State of Israel and at least 750,000 Palestinians either fled or were expelled. Jerusalem district villages like Battir were vulnerable to military raids, making it unsafe for people to stay in their homes.
Villagers temporarily sought safety elsewhere, despite knowing that an undefended, deserted village would almost certainly be destroyed. A local man, Mustafa Hassan, made sure that lighted candles were placed in the house windows at night and that in the morning cattle were taken out to pasture, giving the illusion that the village was still inhabited. Mustafa also built relationships with the Jordanian army and the Palestinian resistance movement who regularly provided a protective presence in Battir to discourage Israeli forces from entering and destroying it. This village located metres from the border with Israel survived. Forty others in the district no longer exist.
As we stood overlooking the landscape of Battir, a train rumbled along the track making its slow journey from Jerusalem to Jaffa, passing between a small patchwork of cultivated fields on either side. Earlier, Sultan, the owner of the information centre had explained how the railway track marked the famous ‘Green Line’, the border between Israel and Palestine agreed in 1949. 30 percent of the land belonging to the village is on the other side of the tracks within the State of Israel but Mustafa Hassan took part in negotiations which led to a unique agreement where villagers were allowed to keep the land in return for preventing damage to the railway.
The resourcefulness of Battir residents was again tested in 2002 when the then Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, announced the construction of a 440 mile long ‘Separation Barrier’ which would run right through Battir, cutting through the ancient stone terraces and irrigation systems, and destroying natural wildlife habitats. The high value agricultural land across the railway would be lost and the community’s way of life and income severely affected.
Once again the community took action, this time an eight-year battle through the Israeli courts to stop the construction of the barrier, led by local Environmental Consultant Hassan Muamer. Drawing upon their shared history of peaceful, purposeful protest they gathered detailed evidence showing the full impact of the separation barrier on the local natural environment. Previous objections to the barrier on human rights grounds were rejected by Israel, so the community decided think creatively and went to great lengths to prove the environmental worth of the land instead, mapping wildlife passages over time and proving to the court that these would be disrupted. They galvanised the support of Israeli environmentalist groups by showing them the richness of the landscape, particularly the springs of water which irrigated the land and attracted animals to drink from miles around.
A train rumbles along the track from Battir to Jerusalem
This locally gathered evidence demonstrated the international importance of the natural and cultural heritage of Battir and in 2014, after another long battle, it was listed as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage site. It was placed on the ‘In Danger’ list of sites at risk of damage or destruction due to the construction of the separation barrier between occupied Palestine and Israel. The UNESCO listing describes Battir as an ‘outstanding example of a landscape that illustrates the development of human settlements near water sources’.
In 2015 the community gained a very rare victory in the Israeli Supreme Court. The building of the barrier was no longer considered a ‘security priority’ and would be re-routed. The decision is likely to be reassessed at a future date so Battir’s residents continue to cultivate a peaceful resistance in their fields. The legacy of Mustafa Hassan lives on as Battir welcomes visitors from around the world. Eco-tourism is being developed in a way that is sensitive to the historic and natural environment drawing on the stories and information gathered during the years of protest against the separation barrier.
The ancient stone terraces of Battir
The railway line
I return to my conversation with Wissam, who tells me that his vision was to have a sustainable business of his own. His family have lived in Battir for generations and he carries on their work growing vines, olives and vegetables organically. He began to develop an eco-tourism business, working in partnership with a local environmental consultancy to offer a low-impact and small scale alternative to standard commercial mass tourism – and so the Al Burj Restaurant and Farm was created. Wissam employed five local chefs – ‘I employ local people, here where they live’. Tourists from Bethlehem could take part in an hour long guided walk and learn about the history, politics, archaeology and agriculture of Battir. They would then pick vegetables from the fields and cook a simple two course lunch at Al Burj. Other tours included dinner and camping out under the dark skies. The only problem was that the restaurant was located in Area C, an area under full Israeli military control. Over 75% of Battir’s land is located in Area C.
We walk a short distance uphill through olive groves to where the restaurant had been. Olive branches were torn from the trees as the bulldozer passed by and now they lie broken on the ground. A little further on and on and a pile of stones is all that remains of the toilet and washroom. At the top of the hill, where the restaurant was, there is less to see. A traditional tabouna oven lies on its side on a level stone platform encircled by the shattered stumps of wooden poles which once supported an elegant tarpaulin roof. An environmentally sensitive structure, it has left few traces behind.
Until last week Wissam had his own restaurant employing five local chefs. This is was before a bulldozer accompanied by Israeli soldiers came to carry out a demolition order on the business. Wissam lights another cigarette and describes how he was given 96 hours to demolish the restaurant himself otherwise it would be forcibly demolished. ‘They have not only demolished a restaurant, they have demolished a vision,’ he says.
The remains of a traditional taboun oven
Wissam’s demolished business
The remains of a toilet and washroom
Wissam in his field