Foreign Dispatch: Building a Wall Through Battir [VIDEO]

by FOX News Radio’s Emily Wither in the West Bank

In the ancient village of Battir, farmers tend beans, squash and their famous eggplant, while the smell of fresh mint among the olive groves is overpowering.

They use irrigation systems that date back to the Roman Times; the spring water trickles down the stepped hills from the various springs and is distributed between the farmers.

While terraces are a common farming method for Palestinians, Michel Nasser, who’s opening an eco-museum here to protect the area, tells me Battir’s are special.  “It’s an ancient area that hasn’t been touched for 2,000 years,” he explains.

But the villagers here say their ancient way of life is under threat and they’re lobbying UNESCO to recognize their agricultural practices and grant the village World Heritage status.  It’s in an attempt to stop Israel from laying down its West Bank separation barrier, prompting critics to say this is more about politics than protection.

Israel began building the barrier in 2002 and, after a 5-year- break, officials have announced they’ll resume building in the next couple of weeks.

The Mayor of Battir, Akram Bader – who’s also taken his case to the Israeli courts – says the route of the wall would see the villagers losing over 30% of their land.  “Destroying the terraces and cutting the irrigation system is criminal. Nobody in Battir can accept this,” he said.

There isn’t an Arabic translation for “stuck in limbo” but the Mayor’s description of the mood in the village certainty fits that phrase.  The court case is still pending, but the tricky thing is part of the land on the other side of the railroad tracks that connects Jerusalem to Tel Aviv is technically on the Israeli side, while the rest of the village belongs to the Palestinians.

An agreement was reached for the Palestinians to continue cultivating the land while the Israeli’s are in control of the train line.  The Israelis say their barrier is for security and has been largely credited for the halt in suicide bombings in recent years.

But the Mayor doesn’t buy it, pointing out to me his village prides itself on being peaceful.  “We always respect the agreements, we always try to protect our lands and now, without any incident, they are going to build the wall.  So we don’t feel it’s about security, but simply a way to take more land,” he said.

The residents have been told that an access gate will be opened to farmers three times a day. But the distrust between the two sides runs deep and the Mayor won’t take their word for it.

Down in the one of the disputed fields, a train rumbles past as one of the farmers offers me some freshly picked mint when I complain of my summer cold.  “We work on this land, we live off this land and the wall will hurt us,” he told me, explaining they needed access throughout the day.

Staring up from the valley at the limestone-faced houses, there’s no denying this is an area of natural and cultural beauty but asking UNESCO for protection is seen by some as a controversial move.

Just last week, I was in nearby Bethlehem as the Palestinians learned that the Church of the Nativity and a Christian pilgrimage route was to receive World Heritage Status registered in Palestine.  This was a highly provocative move condemned by Israel and the US, who want the Palestinians to abandon their statehood bid at the UN and return to peace talks. UNESCO is the only UN body to recognize Palestine as a state, a move that prompted the US to pull their funding.

For Nasser it’s not about the politics, he says he’s backing the UNESCO bid for everyone.  “It’s an historical area that can be used and enjoyed by the people,” he said.  “It’s been inhabited by the Canaanites, the Romans and even by the Jewish people who were here at one time.”

WATCH as FOX News Radio’s Emily Wither reports from Battir HERE:

LISTEN to one of FOX News Radio’s Emily Wither’s reports from Battir HERE: