Landscape as Resistance in the West Bank

Under mounting political and ecological stress, environmentalists in the Palestinian village of Battir are working to protect a 4,000-year-old agricultural landscape.

View of Palestinian hill village and terraces.
View north from the village of Battir, 2014. [Jasmine Desclaux-Salachas]

I have been on a video call with Mariam Ismail Mammar. 1 She is a “heritage storyteller” in the Battir public library, where she runs what she calls a “passport reading” program, sending kids “flying to the world” wherever a book will take them. She is also an irrepressibly enthusiastic facilitator at the Battir Landscape Ecomuseum. We’ll come to that later.

Talking to Mariam is a tonic — in defiance of grim news about expansion of Israeli settlements across Wadi Makhrour, the valley adjacent to the village; in defiance of the toll the occupation takes. The West Bank suffers from high Covid mortality rates and a paucity of available vaccines, as well as everyday harassment and humiliation at checkpoints. Unable to visit Battir during the writing of this essay, I have been making audio and video contact with individuals. These discussions — supplemented by the scarce literature on this site in the period following the Nakba in 1948 — have brought home to me ways of thinking about nonviolent resistance that depart from standard practices of civil disobedience.

Landscape here becomes a domain for the resilience of the community in both space and time.

At a time of continuing concern regarding Israeli annexations in the West Bank, my intent is to report here on my conversations with Battiris, and in so doing to consider the environmental limits of habitation in a demanding landscape subject to ongoing political and ecological stresses. These considerations exceed the commonly framed struggle for land justice, consequential as that struggle remains in geopolitical and ethical terms. Here, the combination of grassroots organizing and international networking, the conservation of age-old agricultural techniques and the inventive deployment of digital tools, are putting forth a definition of “landscape” that encompasses not only topography and climate but also history, culture, education, architecture, and modes of agricultural production. Landscape in this interpretation is a domain for the resilience of the community in both space and time. 2 Depending on the course taken in and around Battir in the next few years, resistance to the pressures of occupation may also be a crucible in which to develop and safeguard a degree of village sovereignty in a landscape of scarce natural resources.

Set between the Mediterranean littoral and the arid lands of the Jordan Valley, Battir’s terraced landscape epitomizes an agricultural ecology that has supported regional populations for millennia — a typology that has come to represent a distinguishing narrative of Palestinian culture. 3 The singular beauty of the terraces, and the ecological integrity of the cultivation practiced on them, in 2014 earned the village protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 4 The site as designated measures roughly twelve-and-a-half square kilometers, comprising Battir’s historic core and the intensively cultivated terracing, as well as springs, irrigation systems, and watchtowers or manatir (for guarding animals and crops); the remains of human constructions dating to the Middle Bronze Age are also included. Despite this archeological significance and the World Heritage protection, however, Battir has in recent years been under intensifying pressure from Israeli settlements, both officially state-sponsored and ad hoc — a distinction that is, in practice, increasingly moot.

Panorama of Palestinian hill village and terraces.
Panoramic view of Battir, 2005. [Jasmine Desclaux-Salachas]

View of Palestinian hill village and terraces.
View west from Battir, 2013. [Jasmine Desclaux-Salachas]

The politics are unique to the situation in Palestine. But, environmentally, UNESCO’s recognition that Battir and its landscape reflect a cultural heritage worthy of conservation is comparable to the organization’s citation of other Mediterranean places, such as Les Causses et Cévennes of southern France, and the Dehesas de la Sierra Morena in western Spain. 5 Whether such official recognition is sufficient for the preservation of Battir in the current political climate is a matter of imminent concern. The Battir site is included on UNESCO’s “List of World Heritage in Danger.” Otherwise, thus far, UNESCO has met the threats of encroachment and environmental destruction with silence.

UNESCO has recognized Battir and its landscape as reflecting a cultural heritage worthy of conservation.

My first and only in-person visit to Battir took place in October 2018, when I traveled with a U.S.-based nonprofit interested in environmental management in Palestine, including water distribution, agricultural practices, and land rights. We visited farms and talked to farmers, lawyers, hydrologists, and other technical experts. As an architect and urbanist, I was struck by the delicate balance maintained in Battir between the built community — densely clustered housing in the village — and its countryside — the terraced slopes and pastoral highlands. While freedom of movement and economic opportunity in Palestine are constrained by the Israeli state, universal questions about migration from the country to the city, and the potential for economic and social sovereignty, particularly with regard to farming and food production, have special resonance in many Palestinian communities. Based on its long agricultural history as well as initiatives currently underway — and either despite, or because of, the constraints under which it labors — Battir presents an instructive model for many other situations. As elsewhere, the questions focus on economic precarity and ecological viability. Can agriculture alone support the community? Or must residents establish other forms of local employment, and avenues for commerce in regional and global contexts? And, perhaps most importantly in the long term, what modes of habitation and economic activity can thrive in this landscape without depleting it?

Map of Battir and surrounding countryside.
Battir, general presentation of geospatial local data, 2012. [Courtesy J.D. Salachas, cartographer]

In my notes from the trip, I wrote:

It was already late afternoon by the time we got to Battir. We, a group of Americans interested to learn more about Palestine, had spent the day visiting farmers, hearing about the struggle to hold onto their land, about legal battles in court and physical aggressions on the ground. We heard about heirloom seeds, new forms of parsimonious irrigation, and the importance of international solidarity. Part of the day had been spent in the bus; part walking up and down dusty roads and paths; part talking under shady pergolas; a lot of time in full sun.

The shadows were lengthening when we arrived in the village, the heat a little less intense. It had been just a short ride from Bethlehem. Hassan, an engineer whom we had met earlier in the day, had invited all 20 of us to have supper in his newly completed café on the terraces overlooking a wadi. Before eating, Hassan took us down steep steps to see the old Roman pool that serves as a reservoir for an irrigation system, delivering water to gardens throughout the valley. Out there against the setting sun, we could see the olive groves and fruit trees, crops of eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, beans, and melon, all lush and robust — in stark contrast to the dry, dusty, stony land we had seen earlier in the day. We climbed the steps, took turns to wash, settled down to cool drinks. For supper we were served maqluba, chicken cooked in a covering of rice, an upside-down dish turned right side up for serving, with the chicken on top. By the time we headed back to our lodging for the evening, we were replete with food, with conviviality, and with yet more directly experienced information to take home with us.

Since that idyllic in-person evening, I have been taken on a virtual tour of the terraces by Hassan Muamer, the civil engineer who had been our host, who explained the irrigation system that has made agriculture possible here since biblical times. Accompanying Hassan was his colleague Fayrouz Sarqawi, who described the current social and political conditions with which the farmers are confronted. Talking remotely with people from the village and from outside — activists and experts in education, agriculture, cultural and environmental preservation, and human rights — I have been introduced to multiple, overlapping and interlocking efforts and initiatives, all generated by a community engaged in frontline struggle, with no one to defend them but themselves. This is, of course, a geopolitical standoff. It is also a struggle between two antithetical views about what it means to build in the hilly landscape of the Central Highlands. On one hand, there persists a form of living lightly on the land, conserving water, and terracing hillsides to avoid the erosion of thin soils; on the other, a view of land as territory for residential and industrial development and exploitation. On one hand, land and climate are treated as partners in sustaining human communities for the long term. On the other, land is taken as real estate to be appropriated, a fungible asset whose mythical value may be ancient, but whose present value is strategic. 

The Garden of Jerusalem

It is said that the steep slopes of Wadi Makhrour, once part of the historical Land of Canaan, have been farmed continuously for 4,000 years. The spring festival of St. George, or Al Khader (which is also the name of a neighboring village), is celebrated in early May by Christians and Muslims throughout Palestine; the modern festival was instituted during Byzantine times, but drew on an older tradition celebrating Ba’al, a Canaanite god of fertility. This deity is commemorated too in what are known as “Ba’al seeds” — seeds suited to growth in an arid climate, including wheat, tomatoes, okra, zucchini, watermelon, and more.

An infrastructure of dry-stone terrace walls and stone-lined irrigation channels support olive groves, almond, plum, and peach trees.

In Battir, an infrastructure of dry-stone terrace walls and stone-lined irrigation channels support olive groves, almond, plum, and peach trees, in addition to crops that grow between the trees, such as the celebrated Battir eggplant, the betenjan Battiri. 6 There are grapevines and bean poles, and fallow land for grazing goats, sheep, and a few donkeys. Under Ottoman rule, this rural paradise was connected to the wider world through the Cairo-Haifa railroad, which opened in 1892 on a route along the bed of Wadi Makhrour. Battir Station was the penultimate stop before Jerusalem, convenient for passengers and efficient for getting vegetables to market; Battir was once known by the sobriquet “the garden of Jerusalem.” But, today, with the station gone and roadblocks disrupting transit, the supply chain from the terraced fields to the city markets has been broken nearly entirely.

Boy with stick and three men with map under a tree.
A citizen-led orienteering project, 2014. [Jasmine Desclaux-Salachas]

Woman in hijab tending her garden.
Maryam Salama and other villagers in her terraced garden, 2013. [Ari Rossner]

Woman in hijab watering her garden.
Maryam Salama watering her garden, 2013. [Ari Rossner]

Two particular dangers now loom for Battir. The first is an Israeli-sponsored plan to expand the Beitar Illit settlement, situated to the west of the UNESCO buffer zone, by building a 60-hectare (150-acre) industrial park. 7 The wastewater treatment plant already serving Beitar Illit is an extant source of groundwater contamination for one of Battir’s springs, Ein Jame’. Given the strong probability that the proposed industrial park would cause significantly higher water consumption, the plan would further disturb the area’s hydrology by lowering groundwater levels. This in turn would compromise the all-important irrigation system. 8

The second threat — no less significant — comes from individual Israeli settlers who squat on Palestinian land. These trespassers break down terrace walls, harass farmers, and contaminate the spring-fed irrigation pools; still more egregiously, they have tried to stake ownership claims on the land itself. In December 2018, a party of settlers bulldozed open a new access road and set up container cabins. (It rained; earth-moving equipment got stuck in the mud, and the Israeli Defense Forces were obliged to evacuate the intruders.) In August 2020, another settler group attempted to take control of a prominent archeological site in the middle of Battir itself, although they were expelled by villagers. 9 By the winter and spring of 2020 and 2021, minor incursions were happening almost weekly, with settlers often accompanied in their trespass by the IDF. Since the eleven-day aggression against Gaza in May 2021, and the installation of a new Israeli government in June, such actions have become still bolder.

Hassan Mustafa’s Cigarette

Samia Al-Botmeh, dean of the faculty of Business and Economics at Birzeit University, lives and works in Ramallah, although her family home remains in Battir. Over Zoom she tells me the story of her grandfather, Hassan Mustafa, who took a degree in sociology from the University of Cairo in 1935, and later became a teacher in Jerusalem, the host of a radio show in Yaffa (the old port in the southern part of modern Tel Aviv), and a village leader back home in Battir. 10

The village had ended up in a no-man’s-land between the Israelis (a red line on negotiators’ maps) and Royal Jordanian forces (a green line).

After the founding of the state of Israel, Wadi Makhrour was transformed by successive waves of violence, including the mass expulsions of residents and the destruction of villages throughout Palestine in 1948, and the war between Israel and Jordan that concluded in the Armistice of 1949. Negotiations following the 1948 war were conducted between Israeli military leadership and Royal Jordanian forces. Battir had ended up in a no-man’s-land between the Israelis on the west (a red line on negotiators’ maps) and the Jordanians to the east (a green line). Negotiations centered on drawing a mutually agreeable single line somewhere between the two. The Israelis wanted to ensure that the Cairo-Haifa railroad as a strategic asset was part of their territory — but that would have left a sizable portion of Battiri land on the wrong (i.e., Israeli) side of the new line. Hassan Mustafa got wind that the Jordanians were going to cede the village and its fields to Israel, so he set about orchestrating a response.

UNESCO map of Battir village and surrounding area.
Battir, UNESCO World Heritage site and buffer zone, 2014. [Courtesy J. D. Salachas, cartographer]

Many refugees from other villages had streamed through Battir en route to safe haven in Jordan. Not unnaturally, many Battiris followed. Mustafa pursued his fellow villagers and found them gathered on the Jordanian border, where he ordered, cajoled, and enjoined them to come back and repopulate their village. Many came, though by no means all. Mustafa instructed those who did return to spread out across the village to create signs of activity. Small boys kept oil lamps burning at night in all the houses; in the daytime, others hung laundry and clattered pots and pans to simulate a busy day of washing and cooking. Still others were sent into the fields to perform work, real or feigned, as evidence of continuing occupancy. To the Jordanians, Mustafa delivered an ultimatum: We are not leaving. Sell us out, and expect trouble. To the Israelis, he went out with his hands raised and suggested talks with the commanding officer, a young man named Moshe Dayan. He was met with hostility, to which Mustafa replied, “before you shoot me, at least give me a cigarette.” This mixture of sangfroid and charm touched the humanity of his adversaries, and Samia’s grandfather came away with his cigarette and a deal. The so-called Armistice Line — the Green Line — was drawn 300 meters up the hill on the west side of the railroad, allowing Battiris to continue farming their fields in exchange for ensuring the security of the rail line running through their valley.

94.1 Percent

Mustafa, Samia tells me, was a strong proponent of education for girls. Post-1948, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, began to set up schools in the Jordanian camps where displaced Palestinians had taken refuge. Mustafa requested that they also establish schools in what were known as “border villages,” places like Battir. Thanks to his courage, Battiris had kept their fields. But many other villages had lost theirs — and with them the possibility of earning sustenance from the land — in the drawing of the Green Line. Officials from UNRWA told Mustafa that they lacked funding for border-village schools. He met the authorities halfway, securing funding for a girls’ school in each of the villages, although some boys had to travel to schools in next-door towns. Samia herself is the beneficiary of this attitude toward female education. Prevailing over the customs of the era, her mother was an educated woman and she, Samia, was sent unaccompanied, in her teens, to study in London, culminating in a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies. It’s true that educated young men in Palestine are often thwarted in their ambitions by arrest or imprisonment, placing greater pressures on the women in their families to earn a living in the public sphere. With that said, it’s also true that Palestinians have one of the highest literacy rates in the world (96.3 percent overall) — and the rate amongst women is 94.1 percent, indicating a high degree of gender equality. 11

Children around a table holding up maps they have drawn.
Children’s mapping workshop with Mariam Ismail Mammar at the Battir Public Library, 2014 [Jasmine Desclaux-Salachas]

The Cistern System

Archeological records tell us that Battir was once endowed with thirteen springs. Seven springs serve the village now, and irrigation channels still connect to two cisterns built by the Romans, each having a capacity of approximately 1,000 cubic meters. There are eight principal families in the village, each owning terraced and irrigated farmland on the valley slopes, as well as grazing land along the crests of hills. To this day, water is directed from the cisterns to the terraces according to a traditional eight-day rotation known as ma’adud (literally, how many, how much). Each farming family receives its equal daily ration from sunrise to sunset, as measured by a notched stick that serves as a depth gauge. Mariam’s people, the Mammar family, has eight members who share the water allocated on their day. The Al-Botmeh family shares its allotment among 21 members. Overnight, the cisterns are replenished by spring water, and at sunrise, the next family begins its daily turn.

The egalitarian system of sharing water amongst the terraces has never been so needed, nor so severely tested.

Most rainfall in the region occurs in springtime; in the 2019 – 2020 season, for instance, 55,000 cubic meters fell. 12 Two-thirds of Battir are in Area C of the West Bank as determined by the Oslo Accords of 1995 — under the direct control of Israel — and regulations forbid any increase in cistern capacity. 13 Wells may not be dug, nor may water be collected from roof runoff. This means that, in the rainy months, thousands of cubic meters overflow the cisterns, flowing downstream into Israel where it is collected and stored. In dry summer months, from May through September, Palestinian farmers must buy back what is in effect their own water through the public-private Israeli agency, Mekorot. These costs are significant, despite the farmers’ frugal usage. On average, Israeli settlements in the West Bank consume 400 liters of water per capita per day. 14 For Palestinians, the far more thrifty and sustainable rate varies between 20 and 79 liters per capita per day. 15 The economical and egalitarian system of sharing water amongst the terraces has never been so needed, nor so severely tested.

Man demonstrating use of stick gauge for measuing water depth.
Stick gauge for measuring water depth, 2013. [Sylvain Gonnet]

Man walking through thigh-deep water in stone cistern.
Measuring depth in a Roman cistern for ma’adud water distribution, 2013. [Sylvain Gonnet]

Stone cistern filled with water.
Spring-fed Roman cistern sourced by Ein Al-Balad, 2013. [Jasmine Desclaux-Salachas]

These restrictions on building and on land and water use, all emanating from the Oslo Accords, have for decades been exacerbated by the pressures from new Israeli settlements, which are slowly but surely sequestering lands around Battir, al-Walaja, Husan, and other border villages, cutting them off from each other and from Jerusalem. In all, since 1967, 24 Palestinian communities in the area have been isolated in this way. Many residents have had little choice but to abandon agriculture and to seek wage employment in Israel, mainly in construction, or to take desk jobs in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, or other West Bank cities.

Such displacements have led to some neglect of the terraces. But, paradoxically, the era of Covid-19 has curtailed outflow from the village, and interest in farming and the restoration of terrace walls has been renewed. Mariam tells me that, within some families, those who have a job (and hence another source of income) are allocated non-irrigated land on the hilltops, while those who depend on agriculture are given irrigated valley land. Samia is the dean of a department at a distinguished university, and yet she regularly comes back on weekends to help work the family land — and is glad to do so.

Mapping as Resistance

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, municipalities in the West Bank were tasked with developing urban master plans to direct growth and establish zoning for new urban areas. In parallel with this effort, Palestine’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities began to compile a list of historic sites of “exceptional universal value” to be put forward for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list. This team was led by Giovanni Fontana Antonelli, an Italian architect employed by UNESCO in Ramallah to work with the Ministry. The proposed recognition of the Battiri landscape as a human creation on a par with archeological remains throughout the region reflected within UNESCO a broader view of the meaning of cultural heritage than it had previously held. The Palestinian Authority itself represented a more conservative view, preferring to consider sites such as Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. The broader view prevailed, and in 2005 the inventory of Palestinian sites identified for possible addition to the World Heritage list acknowledged “the right of the Palestinian landscape to be regarded as cultural heritage.” 16

Stone channel filled with water.
Stone irrigation channel, 2020. [Shatha Alazzeh]

As the discussion about World Heritage status and Palestinian landscapes proceeded, the Bethlehem Area Conservation and Management Plan was being developed under the technical supervision of UNESCO, with funding by the Italian government. This plan covered the city of Bethlehem proper, as well as outlying towns and villages — among them Battir, as well as Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, and landscapes in between. As an adjunct to the Bethlehem plan, Giovanni assembled a team in Battir, led by Hassan Muamer (our host at the terrace café a decade or so later) and other local civil engineers, who surveyed the village and its surroundings. Between 2007 and 2011, these citizen-surveyors compiled a comprehensive topographical map of the village, the springs and watercourses, the terraces and walls, and all other features of the landscape. In 2012, the cartographer Jasmine Desclaux-Salachas, working with her colleagues and students at the École Nationale des Sciences Géographiques in Paris, helped to calibrate the maps created by the Battiri team, in order to create a coherent spatial geographic dataset, “orthorectified” or geometrically corrected to match a satellite digital system. This became the geographic information system on which all subsequent UNESCO mapping of the area was based. According to Jasmine, the building of such a database by a resident population is unique. The people of Battir, as opposed to any national or international agency, own the maps they have helped to make.

The people of Battir, as opposed to any national or international agency, own the maps they have helped to make.

Mapping has long been recognized as a means by which to take possession of territory; cartography is a common instrument wielded by colonial powers. The Battiri maps, however, allow inhabitants themselves to take possession not only of their territory, but of its representations. Children are taught mapping techniques in the village school, and have treasure hunts in the surrounding hills to help them learn orienteering. These activities are organized by Mariam and her colleague Fatima Saleh, the geography teacher, in collaboration with Jasmine in Paris. Citizen-led cartography of this kind can become, as Giovanni tells me, an “instrument for resistance.” “The maps,” as one Palestinian student put it to Jasmine, “are the visualization of our integrity.”

Villagers conducting cartographic survey on Palestinian hillside.
Surveying in Battir, 2020. [Courtesy Fonds Nicola Perugini]

By 2011, all this planning work was bearing fruit. On the ground, those who had been involved in the site survey were being led by Hassan Muamer in establishing the Battir Landscape Ecomuseum, an educational space and information hub. Internationally, Battir was declared a joint winner (with the village of Garni in Armenia) of the 2011 Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes. 17 That same year, the Palestinian Authority was elected to membership in UNESCO. 18  This new status greatly increased the possibility of making direct applications for recognition of historical sites, including Battir.

“Land of Olives and Vines”

Urgency attended the UNESCO application, given that the Israeli government was then proposing to build the remaining section of what is variously referred to as a “separation barrier” or “security wall” along the valley floor in Wadi Makhrour, on the Palestinian side of the railroad. In 2012, the village of Battir and Palestinian Environmental NGO Network / Friends of the Earth Palestine filed a petition to prevent construction of this portion of the wall, on the grounds that it would cut off farmers from their fields — contrary to the agreement struck by Hassan Mustafa in 1949. Michael Sfard is an Israeli human rights lawyer who represented Friends of the Earth, assembling an environmental protections argument on the basis of international law. He confessed to me that, prior to his involvement in the case, he had not known about Battir, a mere fifteen minutes’ drive from his birthplace. Yet he had a powerful incentive to fight for protection of the village as a site then being considered for World Heritage status. Battir, he says, is one of the rare instances in which an active site has been proposed for inclusion on the list. “Unlike Machu Picchu, it is a living, operating landscape.”

Map of Battir and surrounding countryside.
Proposed route for security wall, prior to January 2015. [Courtesy J. D. Salachas, cartographer]

While the case was being heard in the Israeli courts regarding completion of the security wall, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee was meeting in Doha, Qatar. Thanks to the extensive documentation collated in the plans for Bethlehem and its surroundings, as well as the citizens’ meticulous surveys and the international support from cartographers and human rights lawyers, Battir was inscribed into the list in June 2014, in a citation titled “Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines.” 19 Then, in January 2015, the Israeli High Court froze the state’s plan to complete the separation barrier. 20 As Sfard puts it, in light of the World Heritage recognition, “they did not want to be seen as barbaric hooligans.” Today, after the military aggressions of May 2021 and the continuing arrests and executions of young Palestinians throughout Israel and the Occupied Territories, not to mention the planned developments and guerrilla encroachments by Israeli settlers, such scruples seem quaint. As of this writing, UNESCO appears reluctant to exercise its moral and legal authority to protect what the organization itself has listed as endangered. It is in the absence of such international protection that indigenous forms of resistance have become critical. 

Environmentalism on the Ground

Work on preservation of the Battiri landscape has not ceased. Housed in a modestly scaled village building, Hassan Muamer’s Ecomuseum is part research center, part community base for education and capacity building, and part attraction for visitors, local and foreign, who want to explore Wadi Makhrour. Mariam, the storyteller at the public library, is also a facilitator at the museum, where she works with Fatima, the geography instructor, to continue the citizen mapping project with schoolchildren.

Boy seated on stone bench with colored maps.
A boy in an orienteering workshop, 2014. [Jasmine Desclaux-Salachas]

Girls in striped uniforms, outdoors with map.
Schoolgirls studying their maps, 2014. [Jasmine Desclaux-Salachas]

Another community-based initiative, which also works to educate Palestinian youth about the land around them, was organized by Shatha Alazzeh, who directs the Environmental Unit at the Lajee Community Center in Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, a short bus ride from Battir. Shatha is a third-generation refugee living and working in Aida Camp, where space is so tightly packed that no land is available for agriculture. Her family comes from Beit Jibreen, north of Hebron — a place she has never been allowed to visit, since the family was dispossessed in 1948. In the camp, as part of an effort to increase food sovereignty and to decrease dependency on food imported from Israel, she has implemented a program to build rooftop gardens for more than 40 of the now semi-permanent flat-roofed homes; the roof of Lajee Community Center is also devoted to hydroponic agriculture, providing food to the neediest members of the project’s voluntary, cooperative workforce. Shatha often visits Battir with her husband and young son, to enjoy an evening out in the country, and in 2020 she brought together women and children from the village and from Aida Camp to plant olive trees on the Battiri terraces. Instructed by grandmothers or elders — those of a generation who could remember the villages of their origin — each session was leavened with the singing of traditional work songs (including a singing competition) and, of course, plenty of food.

The Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, founded by Vivien Sansour in 2016, also seeks to increase food sovereignty while reinforcing cultural continuity The project began in Bethlehem, but in 2019, Vivien relocated it to Battir. In her words, the mission of the Seed Library is “to find and preserve ancient seed varieties and traditional farming practices” in the belief that “agri-culture” (so hyphenated) is comprised of traditional farming practices along with “the associated lifestyle and traditions essential to a community’s identity.”

Each tree-planting session was leavened with the singing of traditional work songs and, of course, plenty of food.

Vivien speaks about societal transformation as requiring “the power of imagination” and “daring to imagine things unseen.” She talks with conviction about food sovereignty starting at the village level, about farmers as “scientists and artists,” and mothers and grandmothers as the source of knowledge. In a typical encounter at the Seed Library, she explains, a farmer will bring in a sample and, over a cup of coffee with Vivien or her colleagues, discuss where the seeds come from, the strengths and weaknesses of the crop, and any personal memories or associations that the plant may carry. Exchange is not mandatory, but a visitor may want to browse available seeds and make an appropriate barter. Vivien also keeps in the library a selection of “Ba’al seeds” — tomatoes, okra, zucchini, watermelon — bred over generations for “dry agriculture,” without irrigation. The Seed Library is not a seed bank (with an emphasis on scientific study), still less a seed archive (to safeguard against catastrophe). Rather it is an active place of social exchange and mutual support.

Wooden shelves of glass jars filled with seeds.
Seed jars at the Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library, 2019. [Courtesy Vivien Sansour]

Sansour’s work as an artist and activist has brought her as a presenter to multiple universities and cultural organizations in the United States and in Europe. International connections have also been forged by Abeer Butmeh, a member of the extended Butmeh family, who was born and raised in Battir. Abeer has for the past twelve years been coordinator of PENGON / Friends of the Earth-Palestine, the organization that petitioned to block the separation wall. Having trained as an engineer with a focus on environmental studies, her work now centers on climate justice and water rights throughout Palestine, linking Battir’s issues to similar environmental crises unfolding in Gaza, Jericho, and the Jordan Valley. Through PENGON / Friends of the Earth Palestine, she is able to bring international attention to pressing problems, including land sequestration and annexations, the demolition of Bedouin communities, and the lowering of the Jordan Valley water table due to extensive Israeli irrigation.

Hassan, too, considers the Ecomuseum as a conduit, connecting Battir to the larger world even as it reconnects contemporary Battiris to their heritage. I ask him whether the project seeks to conserve the past or to plan for the future. Instantly he replies, “both — this can be a micro-model for sustainable villages in Palestine and beyond.” Indeed, Vivien and Hassan have engaged the youth of Battir and the outlying district in planting “The Apple Path,” a trail of heirloom apple, plum, and apricot trees that will wind throughout the valley, preserving these varietals for a new generation.

Yakteen — dried gourds also called rabayat (Mothers Who Hold) — ready to harvest for seeds at the Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library, 2020. [Courtesy Vivien Sansour]

Woman and man in conversation on stone parapet overlooking West Bank valley.
Artist and activist Vivien Sansour with farmer Abu Annan in Battir, 2019. [Courtesy Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library]

For Mariam, commitments to village education remain central, and she demonstrates her role as teacher of the “children who are the seeds of our future” by singing for me (in Arabic, over Zoom), a traditional work song about tending olive trees, seeking shade at the height of the afternoon sun. It’s a song she teaches her students as they make their mapping trips into the countryside. Yet her perspective is international in its own way; mischievously, she tries to get me to join her in a rendition of “We Shall Overcome” (in English). I do my best.

Landscape as Witness

The agricultural ecology of Battir has been created and maintained by generation after generation of backbreaking labor in the building of walls and terraces; by deep knowledge of the soil and what it will bear; by an understanding of climate and the careful management of water. Here, a landscape and a cultural identity have co-formed in harmonious gestalt.

The Arabic word beit refers to a sense of home as a place of reciprocal nurture between habitation and inhabitant, individual and collective.

In refusing to yield to the oppression of the Occupation — the restrictions on movement and professional opportunity; the daily humiliations at checkpoints; the raids by settlers and the army — the people of Battir have built up a formidable culture of resistance. From 1949 with Hassan Mustafa’s defiance, to the villagers’ 2015 denial of the separation wall, to the present projects in community development, Battir has built on its architectural and landscape heritage, the careful and equitable management of water, the treasuring and sharing of heirloom seeds, the claiming of territory through participatory cartography, and the vibrant social and educational role of the Ecomuseum. Drawing on local initiatives while also gaining international institutional support, conserving age-old agricultural practices while also benefitting from satellite mapping and globalized communication technologies, living off the land while also extending their cultural reach, Battiris are forging a mixed economy, synthesizing history, culture, and environmental sensitivity. Their success derives from a deep knowledge of what is referred to in Arabic as beit, a sense of home not just as building or property but as a place of reciprocal nurture between habitation and inhabitant, individual and collective. In these levels of resistance, there is also resilience.

Little girl holding colored map.
Mapping workshop at the Battir Public Library, 2014. [Jasmine Desclaux-Salachas]

This remarkable place exemplifies deep resonances in the term “landscape.” At its heart, landscape encompasses the visual (views and vistas), the productive (groves and pastures), and the cultural-sensory (part arcadia, part terroir). In Battir, on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, in delicate equilibrium between desert and sea, a population is living within the means of its natural resources. On the Israeli side, that is not the case. The heritage of 4,000 years is being held hostage, and landscape is the witness.

  1. I alternate in this text between referring to an individual by given name when we have had a direct conversation, and by family name if I am quoting from published documents — although occasionally, for clarity, that rule is broken. Transliteration of names from Arabic to English is variable; I have used my interviewees’ preferred anglicizations, recognizing that alternatives do crop up in other places. My interviews took place from late July 2020 through April 2021. Given the circumstances of occupation and the pandemic, I am deeply grateful to all who spared the time to talk with me.
  2. Giovanni Fontana Antonelli, “Palestine 2004-2014: Inhabited Landscape, Human Rights, and Resilience,” in Curare la terra / Caring for the land: Luoghi, pratiche, esperienze / Places, practices, experiences, ed. Patrizia Boschiero, Luigi Latini, Simonetta Zanon (Fondazione Benetton Studi Ricerche, with Antiga Edizioni (Treviso, 2017), 127-153.
  3. M. B. Qumsiyeh et al., Biodiversity Conservation and Community Development in Al-Makhrour Valley in Bethlehem, Palestine (Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability of Bethlehem University, undated), 7. This study was funded by the National Geographic Society.
  4. Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines — Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir,” UNESCO World Heritage List (2014).
  5. The site catalogued as “The Causses and the Cévennes: Mediterranean agro-pastoral Cultural Landscape” was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2011. The Dehesas of the Sierra Morena were listed as a biosphere reserve in 2002.
  6. See recipes at the Taste of Palestine website.
  7. James Rothwell, “West Bank’s Ancient Terraces Threatened by Settlers’ Plan to Build Business Park on UNESCO site,” The Telegraph  (June 11, 2020).
  8. Zafrir Rinat, “Israel Plans West Bank Industrial Zone that would ‘Destroy’ Unique Ecosystem,” Haaretz (May 23, 2020).
  9. Foundation for Middle East Peace, “Settlement and Annexation Report” (July 31, 2020).
  10. See Jawad Botmeh, “Civil Resistance in Palestine — the Village of Battir in 1948” (Master’s thesis, Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies, Coventry University, 2006)
  11. Lydia Cardwell, “The State of Girls’ Education in Palestine,” The Borgen Project (June 21, 2018).
  12. Information on cistern capacity and rainfall from Hassan Muamer (July 28, 2020).
  13. As the website Visualizing Palestine explains: “The Oslo Accords divided the Palestinian West Bank into three administrative zones: Area A (18%), where the Palestinian Authority administers civil and security matters; Area B (22%), where the PA administers only civil matters; and Area C (60%) where Israel maintains full control.” Article 40 of the Oslo II Accord (1995) deals specifically with water and sewage.
  14. On water-consumption averages for Israeli settlements in the West Bank, see “Water resource allocations in the occupied Palestinian territory: Responding to Israeli claims,” Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (2012), 8. Israelis in Israel proper use about 287 liters (nearly 76 gallons) per capita per day. The UN standard for water consumption is 100 liters per capita per day.
  15. On water-consumption averages for Palestinians in the West Bank, see “50 Years of Occupation: Dispossession, Deprivation and De-development,” Association of International Development Agencies (October 2017), 13.
  16. Antonelli, 144.
  17. Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes (UNESCO-Greece), 2011. As the prize citation explains, “The Museum-Reservation of Garni covers a total area of 5.1 hectares in and around Garni Village, some 28 km East of Yerevan in the volcanic Armenia plateau of the Caucasus Mountains. It features a series of historical and architectural vestiges and buildings from the Bronze Age (Cyclopean walls), to Hellenic times (temples, bathhouse), as well as early Christian elements.”
  18. UNESCO’s General Conference voted on October 31, 2011 to admit Palestine as a full member, with 107 votes in favor, fourteen against, and 52 abstentions. Israel and the United States were vehemently opposed to this move, and withdrew funding from UNESCO soon after. Both Israel and the United States withdrew their membership entirely in December 2018. As of June 2021, there are strong indications that the U.S. will rejoin the organization.
  19. Palestine Land of Olives and Vines – Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir.” Thanks to Professor Susan M. Akram of the Boston University School of Law and co-author of “Communication to 38th World Heritage Committee on the Nomination of Battir as a World Heritage Site in Danger” (2014), for providing me with legal and contextual background for the UNESCO proposal.
  20. Nir Hasson, “Israel’s High Court Orders State to Find Alternative to Separation Fence at West Bank Village” (December 14, 2012).
Hubert Murray, “Landscape as Resistance in the West Bank,” Places Journal, June 2021. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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