UNESCO is set to discuss the dangers facing Jerusalem’s eco-systems, a new UNRWA report elaborates the harm caused to water sources and flora throughout the West Bank, and environmental NGOs warn of the impending extinction of several species – these are the wall’s effects on mother nature.
Project photography: Oren Ziv / Activestills
An event of somewhat historic proportions is about to take place in Saint Petersburg in the coming days: for the first time ever, the annual UNESCO convention is to discuss a request to recognize a world heritage site that was put forward by the Palestinian Authority, which itself was accepted as a full member of the international agency last October despite Israeli and American protest. If the request is accepted, the ancient agricultural terraces of Battir will become the first site to earn this international prestige in the whole of West Bank and Gaza Strip, not including the Old City of Jerusalem. It would also mean that Israel would likely be forced to change the planned route of the wall in the last section where construction is still ongoing, which the Ministry of Defense considers “a dangerous gap” allowing “free entrance to Jerusalem by terrorists,” as a spokesperson recently told Ma’ariv.
“The villages of Wadi Fukin and Battir are threatened by the construction of 13 kilometers of a barrier, which would gravely harm agricultural terraces and natural springs that have been serving man for some 3,000 years,” explains Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth – Middle East. “In Battir alone, there are about half a million stones laid down by people over the course of thousands of years, taken care of and rearranged every winter due to natural erosion. The result is a unique cultural landscape, the most perfectly preserved in all of Israel and Palestine, and the only one to be used consecutively throughout the ages.”
A long 70-meter wide strip of concrete
The separation wall is not the only threat to the two villages’ agriculture, but it is definitely the central one. In Wadi Fukin, surrounded in three directions by the rapidly expanding settlement of Betar Illit, hydrologists hired by both NGOs and the army say that construction of the wall in the last remaining clear territory around the village is likely to prevent water from seeping into the underground basin that fills the 11 springs on which local agriculture has been based for decades. Along with Friends of the Earth and Israeli residents of the nearby Tzur Hadasa, villagers are trying to stop the wall, and demand Israel use cameras and other technical systems instead in this section of the barrier. A petition against the route of the wall was filed with the Civil Administration several years ago, and construction cannot commence before it is rejected.
In nearby Battir, Israel sees a more pressing need to erect the wall, but a petition against it is still pending a High Court of Justice decision, and villagers are hoping that UNESCO recognition of their terraces’ historic value will tip the scales for the better. The petition and the request, which were filed using a special emergency procedure after some deliberation by the PA and was supported by the UNESCO delegation to Ramallah, claim that not only would construction damage the complex water system – it would also destroy the ancient terraces themselves. “For thousands of years locals knew how to build houses in a way that would not stop the water from seeping, but the wall leaves no such option,” says Bromberg. “The problem is that with either a fence or a wall you still have a long 70-meter wide strip with a road on each side and concrete buried underground to strengthen it and prevent digging under it. This would quite surely cause irreversible damage of the water springs.”
Similar risks are also likely to affect the neighboring village of Walajah, whose case was described in depth earlier in this series, and Bromberg estimates that had that village also used the environmental argument in its petitions to the courts – it would have been more likely to stop the wall which is now being built all around it.
The fight for the desert
The plight of Battir and Wadi Fukin may well make headlines in coming days due to the UNESCO convention. But the wall has many more damaging effects on local eco-systems, the others being severe harm to fauna and flora, the mass uprooting of trees to make room for the wall, the forced neglect of fruit-bearing trees on the “Israeli” side of the wall, and the scarring of miles of natural landscape in the country and the desert.
In a story published in 2006, Ha’aretz correspondent for environmental affairs Zafrir Rinat mentioned that construction of the wall signifies the first time in history that this land is completely divided as a geo-ecological unit (as opposed to political, economic and other divisions, which do not exist, as Yuval Ben-Ami and I mentioned in our joint podcast on borders). “The wall makes me frustrated and depressed,” Rinat was told by Society for Protection of Nature’s Avraham Shaked at the time (Hebrew only). “In addition to the dramatic injury to the landscape, this means a complete stopping of movement for some animals, which is essential to the survival of several species, and is the foundation of nature preservation.”
In another piece, Rinat notes that it took environmentalists in Israel a very long time to realize the effects of the wall. While this delayed start made it too late to change anything in the northern part of the route – the south was and still is relevant for a struggle. In recent years, NGOs have aimed their criticism mainly at the route in Wadi Qelt (the part of the wall engulfing the Adomim Plain, where construction has been stopped for political reasons), and at the route in the Judean Desert, the southeastern most part of the wall. In 2007, then Minister of Defense Amir Peretz ordered construction of that part be stopped, promising to consider suggestions for using the difficult terrain combined with electronic detection devices as an alternative to the wall. Construction has not resumed there since.
The environmentalists’ arguments on these two sections of the wall focus on the disruption of migration routes of deer, mountain goats, hyenas, wolves and leopards, the latter being endangered in Israel. Side effects would also limit plant seed distribution, due to the animals that carry them, and a risk of extinction for the Bonelli’s Eagle in our parts – all of this in a region considered unique due the meeting point of desert and irrigated mountains and fields. Around the northern parts of the wall reports are already mounting on its actual harmful effects on wildlife and plants, although in certain places west of the wall animals have been said to be better protected now from Palestinian farmers.
An important political issue worthy of mentioning in this context is settlers’ involvement in environmental struggles in the West Bank, linking “green” rhetoric with opposition to a wall that leaves parts of the “promised land” outside Israeli boundaries. In one case the Kfar Etzion Field School petitioned the High Court in order to change the route of the wall where it would have led to the partial uprooting of a forest. Once accepted by the state, the petition led to a new route being drawn – one which uproots more Palestinian agricultural fields (Hebrew).
UNRWA: Severe impacts on farmer communities
More ecological effects of the wall, ones which also harm Palestinian communities, are described in a special report published by UNRWA about two week ago. The report mentions the uprooting of thousands of trees along the route of the wall (12,000 near Qalqilia alone), and a decline in productivity of those that remain on its western side – a result of farmers being denied access to their lands (as described earlier in this series). UNRWA also elaborates on the damage caused to water wells, springs and cisterns, and the flooding of neighborhoods adjacent to the wall caused by rain being unable to flow freely as it used to. In one instance in Beit Hanina in the winter of 2012, the water rose several meters high.
In a Jerusalem press conference for the publication of the report, its authors called upon the world to intervene and make Israel abide by the ICJ ruling on the wall and stop all construction within the territories. However, at least as far as nature goes, building the wall on the green line might have some minor positive effects – but won’t counter most of the damage.
Previous chapters in this series:
Part 1: The great Israeli project
Part 2: Wall and Peace
Part 3: An acre here and an acre there
Part 4: Trapped on the wrong side
Part 5: A new way of resistance
Part 6: What has the struggle achieved?
Part 7: A village turned prison
Part 8: A working class under siege