Peace activists and environmental groups are campaigning against an industrial zone to be established near the West Bank settlement town Beitar Ilit. They say that the project endangers water sources used by local Palestinians for traditional terraced agriculture.
The project was conceived some five years ago. The area is under direct IDF military control and considered diplomatically sensitive. Ultra-Orthodox settlers live there in the vicinity of several Palestinian villages. The plans for the industrial zone place it north of ultra-Orthodox Beitar Ilit and the Palestinian village of Wadi Fukin, and near two other Palestinian villages. And so, authorities were in no hurry to approve the project. It was ultra-Orthodox Interior Minister Aryeh Deri who pushed the plan forward. Anxious to offer the ultra-Orthodox residents of Beitar Ilit job prospects, Deri put the project on the top of his priority list.
But it was not until December 2018 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greenlit the plan. Deri had smartly combined the authorization of Beitar Ilit’s industrial zone with the authorization of another West Bank industrial zone Barkan. Netanyahu thus discovered that he could not approve the one without the other. Deri then got the Finance Ministry to allocate millions of shekels to the project, promising that the zone would generate thousands of high-level jobs.
This industrial park, to be established on an area known as the "English Forest," will house industry, tech incubators and IT companies alongside shops, sports facilities and other public spaces including a cemetery.
With Netanyahu’s authorization, plans for the industrial zone were drafted and elaborated. These plans have already been submitted for the usual public inspection procedures, during which anyone can voice an objection. They are expected to be submitted soon to the civil administration planning committee for final approval.
For the mayor of Beitar Ilit, the project is practically a fait accompli, but Israeli and Palestinian activists continue to fight it. They explain that the project is located in West Bank's Area C close to the Green Line, in an area with no separation fence. While authorities say that the industrial park will be constructed on state land, activists claim that some of it belongs to Palestinian villagers.
But there is more to the problem. The area near Wadi Fukin houses beautiful old terraces for traditional agriculture, used by generations of local Palestinian farmers. The same water sources are used to irrigate the terraces as the ones farmers used hundreds of years ago. The uniqueness of this area has attracted attention in recent years, with UNESCO including the site, Battir, to its World Heritage List.
"The Battir hill landscape comprises a series of farmed valleys, known as 'widian,' with characteristic stone terraces, some of which are irrigated for market garden production, while others are dry and planted with grapevines and olive trees. The development of terrace farming in such a mountainous region is supported by a network of irrigation channels fed by underground sources. A traditional system of distribution is then used to share the water collected through this network between families from the nearby village of Battir," reads UNESCO’s description.
Environmentalists fear that the industrial zone will pollute and even destroy the underground water sources, damaging the site, which dates back to the rule of King Herod. They also fear that the construction and heavy machinery will destroy the ecological corridor that enables the movement of wild animals there on both sides of the green line.
EcoPeace Middle East has been championing the campaign against the project and for the preservation of the terrace landscape of Battir. Its Israeli director Gidon Bromberg told Al-Monitor, "Planning maps clearly show that the industrial estate would indeed cover much of the buffer zone of the World Heritage site as well as touch the core area itself." Sources in UNESCO explained to Al-Monitor that the agency is not yet involved in the campaign, as the industrial zone is planned outside of the specific protected area.
Still, EcoPeace and local Palestinian residents argue that the town of Beitar Illit and the neighboring village of Tzur Hadasah have been advancing construction plans to enlarge the two localities. They say the plans place the aquifers in danger of damage and pollution.
Sources involved in the industrial zone say that steps will be taken to protect the underground water sources, that no chemical plants would be authorized there and that special efforts will be made to minimize damage to the environment. Still, EcoPeace fears that once permission is granted for the bulldozers to start digging, there will be no turning back.