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The Wall, 10 years on: part 9 / Dividing land - water, fauna, flora

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.

The Wall: 10 years on (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

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 farmer and a natural spring in Wadi Fukin. Background: Betar Illit (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

A farmer and a natural spring in Wadi Fukin. Background: Betar Illit (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

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.

A farmer in the fertile lands of Wadi Fukin. Background: Betar Illit (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

A farmer in the fertile lands of Wadi Fukin. Background: Betar Illit (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

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.

A gap in the wall near Jerusalem. A meeting point of to eco-systems (Oren Ziv / Activstills)

A gap in the wall near Jerusalem. A meeting point of two eco-systems (Oren Ziv / Activstills)

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.

Uprooted trees outside the Qalqilia wall. 12,000 have been uprooted for its construction in this area alone (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Uprooted trees outside the Qalqilia wall. 12,000 have been uprooted for its construction in this area alone (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

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


Part 10: My encounters with the wall in space

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    1. Some similar ecological objections have been raised against the boarder fence between Mexico and the US, especially on the issue of disrupted migration routes (I guess that is sort of an unindented pun–human vs wildlife migration). I also believe (think I recall) that massive amounts of trash accumulate at the fence.
      This is an excellent, well reasoned series. You have well shown how the wall, sold as a final solution (yes, those words, punned) to the security fears, has in fact become another tool for social expungment (if not a word, it should be). The water disruption you describe will actually be seen as a plus by some. By any hidden means. Maybe that is all, or most, of what history is.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Joel

      Neither Jew nor Arab wanted the separation barrier. It was built out of war time necessity.

      I bet Haggai lives in Tel Aviv and can go to sleep at night without concern for his or his family’s safety, unlike, an Israeli who lives on or near the Green Line.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Amram

      The wall was brought in being by PLO and hamas that wrought suicide bombings in Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    4. sh

      Haggai, I flinch each time I see that you’ve added another chapter to your series on The Wall. It’s beautifully written, meticulously and impartially presented and would be a pleasure to read if the content wasn’t so profoundly disturbing. Oddly, this one particularly so, although there is little here that’s obvious on human suffering. When I pass places like Lifta and see the messed-up but still visibly ingenious husbanding and channelling of water that made the village so lush that many of the old almond and fig trees still flourish and bear fruit and the fennel is still abundant and fragrant almost 70 years after the inhabitants who made it so were made to flee, I am appalled by our insensitivity to those unique terraced landscapes that are being gashed and mutilated under our noses. And this doesn’t even begin to take account of the less easily spotted scars we only learn about thanks to people who document them as you do.
      Joel, Amram, the wall was brought in to further fragment the social fabric of Palestinians and the excuse for it was provided by the second intifada. Anyone who once saw border fortifications between the communist part of Europe and the rest of it knows that walls are not the only way of discouraging “infiltrators”. And now, a few decades further down the line, we have electronic devices that could easily obviate the need for even those deep, barbed pits of deterrence.
      Don’t bother with your repetitions of the official line. Israel fooled its own citizens about its real intentions concerning the Palestinians and by now most of Israel’s silent majority knows that too. Instead of peace with its environment, Israel’s government clearly wants it first erased and then refashioned. There are those in Israel will neither pause nor sleep until not a single Palestinian is left between the river and the sea.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Joel

      No. The separation barrier was built to stop suicide bombers the same way that a fence is now being hurriedly built along the Israel-Egypt border in order to prevent cross-border attacks from Sinai.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Abe Bird

      “An event of somewhat historic proportions”… common, illusions again, Mr. Haggai Matar? You have too much leftish tilt that run you out of the proper road !!!!!!!!

      Reply to Comment
    7. david

      The barrier saves lives by making it harder for Arab terrorists to murder Jewish civilians. Israel has been far too generous in extending concessions, only to be rebuffed every time. Peace is impossible with the Arabs, whose only goal is to eliminate Israel.

      The so-called Palestinians in Judea, Samaria and the rest of Israel should return to where they came from (Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt,..) and stop squatting on Jewish land.

      Reply to Comment