The following post is by Elana Katz-Mink. Ms. Katz-Mink has an M.A. in Environmental Studies and Water Management from Ben Gurion University and is a J.D. candidate at American University Washington College of Law. She can be reached at ekatzmink [at] gmail.com.
Only a few miles from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Green Line, residents of the Palestinian village of Battir practice an ancient agricultural water-use technique dating back to the Roman Period. Agricultural terraces, which were developed to take advantage of natural mountain springs, cover 2,000 hectares around the village where residents cultivate produce for their livelihoods and sustenance.
Over the centuries, the terraces have increased the land’s fertility, preserving the area’s agricultural heritage and environmental integrity (see NY Daily News article and FoEME Report). Israel is currently planning to build the separation wall on the edge of Battir, separating Palestinian farmers from their fields. If constructed, the wall will severely imperil the hydrology and ecology of the area (see Report of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority [in Hebrew]). This type of harm is not novel or unique. In virtually any location around the world, the isolation and fragmentation of landscape can have deleterious effects on the diversity and abundance of flora and fauna. It can also be disastrous for a region’s water security because a sustained, natural flora presence can help maintain both the water table balance and groundwater quality. In addition, a wall can block the natural flow of floodwater from its usual drainage-route resulting in flooding, soil erosion, and habitat destruction.
These grave consequences are further compounded by the very real effects the wall can have on human residents of the area. For example, this past winter in the town of Qalqilya, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, floodwater mixed with sewage as a result of the separation wall and inundated people’s homes and fields (see Ma’an News Agency story). While events like these harm Palestinian residents on their side of the wall, they have serious consequences for Israelis as well. Incidents like Qalqilya pollute the groundwater on which both Palestinians and Israelis rely for domestic, industrial, and environmental uses (see FoEME Report: A Sleeping Time Bomb).
In 2006 in the Palestinian village of Wadi Fuqin, Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) marshaled evidence showing that construction of the wall would cause hydrological and ecological destruction. Additionally, FoEME helped to orchestrate a joint effort by Wadi Fuqin villagers and the neighboring Jewish community of Tzur Hadassah that has temporarily stopped the wall’s construction in this area (see FoEME case study and JTA story).
Battir, unlike Wadi Fuqin, does not have a clear Israeli sister-city lying across the Green Line to protest the wall’s construction on their behalf; however, Battir may have a branch of the Israeli government in its corner. In August 2012, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority published a report condemning construction of the separation wall in Battir because of the risk it posed to the ecological and hydrological integrity of the area (see Report of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority [in Hebrew]). In a water-starved region, such a risk may prove extremely persuasive as Israel is forced to confront how its actions could affect one of its biggest national security concerns: long-term access to and supply of fresh water. While Israel has typically recognized its national security as equivalent to its military security, the risk the wall creates could threaten the security of the nation in terms of its fresh water supplies, resources on which both Israel and the Palestinian Authority depend.
In 2007, Battir both brought suit in the Israeli Supreme Court (ISC) and requested Israel’s Finance Ministry to consider rerouting the wall. The Finance Ministry has not yet ruled, but construction was halted in fall 2012 by the ISC when it ordered cessation and a timely response by the Ministry to the allegations of the Battir residents. Generally, the ISC has held that the wall is a legitimate security need for Israel, despite the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion finding the wall illegal under international law. In a few rare instances, though, while maintaining the legitimacy of the wall, the ISC has ordered the route be changed or construction stopped and/or dismantled on grounds that the wall’s route would not fulfill its purposed security purposes (e.g., Beit Sourk, Bilin, Wadi Fuqin). Nevertheless, these decisions are the exception, and the ISC consistently has accorded more weight to the Israeli Defense Ministry’s expressed military security concerns.
On December 13th, 2012, the ISC issued an interim decision ordering the Israeli Defense Ministry to submit plans for an alternate route for the wall in the Battir area within ninety days, necessitating consideration of the environmental impacts of the route. The Israeli Defense Ministry has proposed a fence, rather than a stone wall, as a compromise that it says will reduce damage to the landscape. Battir and conservation experts maintain that a fence will cause the same harm as a stone wall (see articles in Haaretz [in Hebrew] and the Environment And Climate In The Middle East blog). The ISC has yet to issue a final decision. While the interim decision is only a temporary win for the residents of Battir, it marks the latest case demonstrating the exception to the military security rule. Perhaps, this decision signals a shift from the ISC’s military security rule to the consideration of water and environmental security concerns. The final decision will be extremely significant for Battir, and potentially for the jurisprudence of national security. Regardless of the final outcome, the interim decision mandating consideration of ecological impacts is an achievement in the continued struggle for recognition of water and environmental security as an integral part of national security.
Post Script (March 29, 2013)
A metal fence was proposed as a compromise by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, but has not yet been accepted by the Battir residents, environmentalists, or the ISC. Even if a fence were accepted it would not solve most of the ecological or hydrological issues that exist with a cement barrier. Often the structure of the fences that separate the West Bank and Israel entail much destruction in the surrounding area during the construction phase (uprooting of flora and fauna that help to clean water as it percolates to the water table). In addition, a large ditch is usually dug on the West Bank side of the fence (the source of water flows) that would prevent water from reaching the sea. Lastly, the road and fencing would still prevent the migration of flora and fauna in the area.