- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 15, 2012

BATTIR, West Bank — One of the last Palestinian farming villages that still uses irrigation systems from Roman times says its ancient way of life is in danger as Israel prepares to lay down its West Bank separation barrier.

With construction possibly beginning in the coming weeks, the people of Battir hope a legal battle, backed by recent U.N. recognition of the village’s agricultural practices, will help change Israel’s mind.

Battir’s 6,000 inhabitants live in limestone-faced houses built into a hillside southwest of Jerusalem.

On land around the homes, stone retaining walls have transformed scrubby hills into orderly terraces of olive trees and vegetable gardens.

Terraces are a common Palestinian farming technique in the hilly West Bank terrain. But in Battir, they are unique for their extent - stretching uninterrupted across nearly 800 acres - and for the centuries-old network of irrigation canals that direct springwater over the stepped hills.

This combination prompted the U.N.’s cultural agency, UNESCO, to award the village last year a $15,000 prize for “safeguarding and management of cultural landscapes.”

The canal network has been in place for 2,000 years, with residents continually keeping up the system, said Giovanni Fontana-Antonelli, a local UNESCO official.

Land issues

Because the area is largely untouched by construction, it is still possible to see “the form and the shape of the past generations’ work,” Mr. Fontana-Antonelli said. “In other places you have terraces, but you also have urban sprawl, roads and settlements.

“The wall as projected so far will interfere with this ancient irrigation system by cutting part of the irrigation network,” he said of the planned path for Israel’s barrier. The integrity of the terraces “will be totally dismantled.”

Israel began building the barrier in 2002 in response to a wave of deadly suicide bombings carried out by Palestinians who had entered from the West Bank.

Planned to stretch 500 miles, it is about two-thirds complete, according to Shaul Arieli, a retired military officer who now advises the Supreme Court on the barrier.

Israelis say the structure is a main reason for the halt in suicide bombings in recent years.

But Palestinians argue it is a pretext for Israel to steal their land.

Nearly 10 percent of the West Bank, which the Palestinians claim for a future state, will lie on the “Israeli” side of the barrier when it is complete.

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