Hassan’s story – Sybil, Tim and Ciar visited Battir, near Bethlehem, during some free time.
Battir is a village between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It’s close to Deir Yassin, scene of the most notorious massacre of Palestinians by the Zionist terrorist groups in 1948.
The village and its valley are beautiful – Roman aqueducts, elaborate terracing and an Iron Age site.
The Ottomans built a railway from Jerusalem to Jaffa which loops around the valley close to the village and across its lands. Hassan, our friend in Battir, told us that the railway – you can still see the old Battir station – meant that the village population has always been particularly well educated and well travelled.
In ‘48 the 12 villagers who stayed put whilst others fled from the advancing Zionist army managed with huge ingenuity to make the village look as though it was still inhabited. They put candles in every house and hung out washing everywhere. They even walked around at night with sticks pretending to be Arab army soldiers.
They succeeded in having the armistice line drawn far enough away to include all their land, and they claim to be the only Palestinian village where refugees were able to return from the camps in 1949.
The armistice line was eventually drawn so that Battir people could access their land, including the land which was beyond the railway line – on condition that the railway was not attacked.
It has not been attacked once in the 67 years since the Naqba, despite daily Israeli trains passing through to this day.
In the early 2000s the Israelis planned to run the apartheid wall very close to the village, blocking the land and the landscape. Villagers began a lengthy and expensive legal challenge in the Israeli Supreme Court to stop it, without much hope to begin with.
Meanwhile a group, including Hassan, who is an engineer, began to create a dossier of maps and documents, starting from the British Mandate maps of the 1920s. They recorded the history, the archaeology, land ownership, available water, agriculture and wildlife.
This won them the 2011 Melina Mercouri prize for Cultural Landscape.
In the same year Palestine was admitted to UNESCO and the group of villagers, including the elected mayor and the town council pushed the Palestine Authority (PA) to apply for Endangered World Heritage status for Battir.
They were disgusted that the PA preferred to promote the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem – as a major tourist attraction it’s hardly endangered! Battir, with its struggle against the apartheid wall, was a much more significant political cause.
The John Kerry ‘peace process’ farce coincided with this Endangered World Heritage application which meant that the PA was expected to suspend all international negotiations as a precondition. Although, of course, at the same time it did not inhibit Israel with its land grabbing settlements.
Finally in 2014, Battir got its World Heritage status – but the vote, in Doha was nail bitingly close.
This of course had an impact on the Supreme Court case – Israel would not dare to put its wall through a UNESCO site. So eventually they won.
A courageous and clever campaign – Battir is now a major destination option in Palestine’s young tourism industry with well organised walking trails and a guest house.