Planned Israeli settlement threatens West Bank UNESCO site ecosystem

Planned Israeli settlement threatens West Bank UNESCO site ecosystem
A view of the West Bank village of Battir, whose terraces are a UNESCO cultural landscape. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 21 June 2023
Follow

Planned Israeli settlement threatens West Bank UNESCO site ecosystem

Planned Israeli settlement threatens West Bank UNESCO site ecosystem
  • Residents fear their ancient way of life could soon be in danger as Israel’s far-right government moves ahead with a settlement project on a nearby hilltop

BATTIR, West Bank: Generations of Palestinians have worked the terraced hillsides of this West Bank farming village southwest of Jerusalem, growing olives, fruits, beans and exquisite eggplants renowned across the region in a valley linked to the biblical King David.
But residents fear their ancient way of life could soon be in danger as Israel’s far-right government moves ahead with a settlement project on a nearby hilltop. Environmental groups say the construction could devastate already strained water sources supplying the agricultural terraces and cause extensive damage to an already precarious ecosystem.
Battir’s plight shines a light on how the trappings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — settlements, land disputes and military activity — can take a toll on the region’s environment, natural resources and cultural heritage.
The proposed construction “will grab a great amount of land, and you don’t know where it will end,” said Rashid Owinah, 58, whose family has farmed in Battir for generations. “This will affect the community mentally, economically and socially.”
Two environmental groups, EcoPeace and the Society for the Protection of Nature, have petitioned Israeli authorities to halt the plan, citing its potential impact on the lush terrace gardens below.
In the valley where the Bible says David battled the Philistines, which in spots seem undisturbed by modernity, the farmers channel water from a 2,000-year-old Roman-era pool to grow crops on terraces that cascade down the mountainsides.
On a recent day, water burbled out of a rock face and trickled down an aqueduct beneath a fruiting mulberry tree toward the disused Ottoman train tracks below that once brought the terraces’ produce to Jerusalem.




A Palestinian vendor sells produce made by farmers in the West Bank village of Battir Sunday, June 4, 2023. (AP)


While the expansion of the Har Gilo settlement has long been on the books, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new ultranationalist and religious government has made such projects a top priority. Local settler leaders are pushing hard to make the plan a reality.
The United Nations’ cultural heritage body, UNESCO, recognized the millennia-old terraces in the serpentine valleys around Battir as a world heritage site in 2014.
“The complex irrigation system of this water supply has led to the creation of dry walls terraces which may have been exploited since antiquity,” according to documentation filed with UNESCO. “The integrity of this traditional water system is guaranteed by the families of Battir, who depend on it.”
Between the terraces and a surrounding buffer zone meant to protect them, the UNESCO cultural landscape makes up around 10 square kilometers (3.8 square miles) of hills and wadis. Plastic litter left by picnickers is strewn along paths crisscrossing the valley.
The terraces, which for generations served as the market garden of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, are irrigated by intricate aqueducts and channels that the village’s farmers share. Around 40 percent of Battir’s 5,000 residents depend on agriculture for a living, according to former mayor Akram Bader.
“Here, we refuse to use the new machines,” he said. “We want to keep the traditional way of agriculture.”
Environmentalists say those springs would be endangered by Israel’s planned settlement construction in the buffer zone abutting the terraces.
“If you build an extensive town at the top, it destroys this landscape,” said Nadav Tal, a hydrologist who serves as the Middle East Water Officer for EcoPeace, a joint Israeli-Palestinian group.
The springs dotting the valley at the base of Battir are fed by groundwater that is recharged by rainfall percolating into the limestone hills above. “If you build on top of these rocks, you can block the water from reaching the springs,” he said.
Access to water is already a challenge for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, with many suffering from chronic supply shortages.
Israel effectively controls most of the water supply in the territory and limits the amount of water the Palestinians can extract from the mountain aquifer, the main water supply in the territory. Modern construction elsewhere has caused springs Palestinian farmers depend on to dry up.
On top of that, human-driven climate change is projected to raise global temperatures and cause more frequent droughts in the Levant. Burgeoning Israeli and Palestinian populations are expected to further strain limited water resources.




A Palestinian collects water from a spring in the West Bank village of Battir Sunday, June 4, 2023. (AP)


The future settlement plan, known as Har Gilo West, is slated to develop a craggy hilltop less than a mile (1.5 km) across the valley north of Battir. The project, which would effectively double the size of the existing Har Gilo settlement, is set to begin with 560 new housing units atop a ridge overlooking the terraces.
Shlomo Ne’eman, head of the Gush Etzion settlement council, said there is a dire housing shortage in the area, and Har Gilo in particular. He said all urban development comes at the expense of the environment, but in the case of Har Gilo West he argues that it is atop “a rocky hill that has no natural value.”
“There are no springs, there are no forests, there is no rare flora,” Ne’eman said, accusing environmental groups of selective, political activism.
He insisted that the Har Gilo West plans “aren’t close to the terraces, don’t approach them, don’t harm and don’t touch them.”
In its petition, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel said the plan “doesn’t meet any environmental criterion” and lacked standard environmental assessment documentation.
A summertime survey it conducted on the site found at least 195 plant species, 25 butterfly species, numerous bird species, including at least three listed as endangered, and said it was a habitat for the endangered mountain gazelle and threatened striped hyena.
COGAT, the Israeli military body responsible for civilian affairs in the occupied West Bank, said the existing plans are aimed at “minimizing damage to the landscape, and (pay) attention to other environmental issues.” It said the planning would examine objections filed by environmental groups but gave no indication of when that would happen.
Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for a future independent state.
Most of the international community considers Israeli settlements an impediment to the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. More than 700,000 Jewish settlers now live in dozens of settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Previous plans to build a section of Israel’s West Bank separation barrier adjacent to the terraces were scrapped after vocal opposition over its potential impact on wildlife and the ecosystem.
Yonathan Mizrachi of the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said the Har Gilo West plans have already passed several steps in the byzantine settlement approval process.
Although the the plan still awaits final authorization before bulldozers move in, he said the approval of a highway expansion for Har Gilo last September indicates Israel’s intention of moving forward.


Syria armed forces down seven drones around Hama, Idlib

Syria armed forces down seven drones around Hama, Idlib
Updated 9 sec ago
Follow

Syria armed forces down seven drones around Hama, Idlib

Syria armed forces down seven drones around Hama, Idlib
DAMASCUS: Syrian armed forces shot down seven drones aimed at military positions and villages in the countryside of Hama and Idlib, Syrian state media said on Sunday, citing the defense ministry.
The ministry said the drones had been launched by “terrorists,” state media reported.

Lebanese doctor saves Japanese boy’s life

Lebanese doctor saves Japanese boy’s life
Updated 7 min 46 sec ago
Follow

Lebanese doctor saves Japanese boy’s life

Lebanese doctor saves Japanese boy’s life
  • The boy was quadriplegic, or paralyzed below the neck, when he visited the Okayama University Hospital

DUBAI: Lebanese doctor Abd El Kader Al-Askar, a consultant in orthopedic and spine surgery, successfully treated a 15-year-old Japanese boy who suffered from a rare condition known as basilar invagination.

The boy was quadriplegic, or paralyzed below the neck, when he visited the Okayama University Hospital.

Doctors concluded that he had dislocated the second cervical vertebra, known as C2, which plays an important role in rotating the head. The C2 was displaced toward the opening of the spinal cord and the bottom area of the brain in a condition known as basilar invagination.

Basilar invagination can be present at birth or develop as a result of injury. If not treated, it can lead to death or serious complications, such as hydrocephalus.

In collaboration with the integrated medical team, Al-Askar performed an emergency surgery that lasted over four hours and involved an innovative technique that repositioned the bottom of the skull and the spinal cord.

The boy fully recovered and regained the use of all four of his limbs following the surgery.

Al-Askar is currently in Japan for a medical mission in advanced spine surgery and the treatment of back pain.


Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens

Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens
Updated 25 February 2024
Follow

Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens

Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens
  • Israeli delegation that went to Paris for talks on hostage deal returned on Saturday night
  • Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been spearheading efforts to secure a deal

JERUSALEM: -Israel’s war cabinet has discussed the next steps for negotiations toward a hostage deal and ceasefire in its war with Hamas, as concern deepens over the increasingly desperate situation faced by civilians in the devastated Gaza Strip.
An Israeli delegation that had traveled to Paris for fresh talks on a hostage deal returned to brief the country’s war cabinet on Saturday night, according to an official and local media reports.
National security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a televised interview shortly before the meeting that the “delegation has returned from Paris — there is probably room to move toward an agreement.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the meeting would discuss the “next steps in the negotiations.”
Local media later reported that the meeting had concluded with the cabinet agreeing to send a delegation to Qatar in the coming days to continue the talks.
As with a previous week-long truce in November that saw more than 100 hostages freed, Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been spearheading efforts to secure a deal.
Domestic pressure on the government to bring the captives home has also steadily mounted, with thousands gathering in Tel Aviv Saturday night at what has come to be known as “Hostages Square” to demand swifter action.
“We keep telling you: bring them back to us! And no matter how,” said Avivit Yablonka, 45, whose sister Hanan was kidnapped on October 7.
Anti-government protesters were also out in Tel Aviv, blocking streets and calling for Netanyahu’s government to step down as authorities deployed water cannon and mounted officers in a bid to disperse them.
“They are not choosing the right path for us. Whether it’s (the) economy, whether it’s peace with our neighbors,” 54-year-old software company CEO Moti Kushner said of the government, adding “it looks like they never want to end the war.”

After more than four months of shortages inside the besieged Gaza Strip, the World Food Programme said this week its teams had reported “unprecedented levels of desperation,” while the United Nations warned that 2.2 million people were on the brink of famine.
In northern Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, bedraggled children held out plastic containers and battered cooking pots for what little food was available.
Supplies are running out, with aid agencies unable to get into the area because of the bombing, while the trucks that do try to get through face frenzied looting.
“We the grown-ups can still make it, but these children who are four and five years old, what did they do wrong to sleep hungry and wake up hungry?” one man said angrily.
Residents have resorted to eating scavenged scraps of rotten corn, animal fodder unfit for human consumption and even leaves.
The health ministry said on Saturday that a two-month-old baby identified as Mahmud Fatuh had died of “malnutrition” in Gaza City.
Save the Children said the risk of famine would continue to “increase as long as the government of Israel continues to impede the entry of aid into Gaza.”
Israel has defended its track record on allowing aid into Gaza, saying that 13,000 trucks carrying relief supplies had entered the territory since the start of the war.
The war began after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.
Hamas militants also took hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 29,606 people, mostly women and children, according to a Saturday tally from Gaza’s health ministry.
The ministry said early Sunday that another 98 people had been killed overnight, with the Hamas media office reporting strikes along the length of the territory, from Beit Lahia in the north to Rafah in the south.

An AFP reporter said there had been a number of air strikes on Saturday evening in Rafah, a city along the territory’s southern border with Egypt where hundreds of thousands of Gazans have fled to escape fighting elsewhere.
The presence of so many civilians packed into the area has sparked concerns over Israeli plans for troops to finally push into the city, the last major urban center they have yet to enter.
Despite the concerns, including from key ally the United States, Netanyahu signalled Saturday night that the expected push had not been abandoned, adding that “at the beginning of the week, I will convene the cabinet to approve the operational plans for action in Rafah, including the evacuation of the civilian population from there.”
“Only a combination of military pressure and firm negotiations will lead to the release of our hostages, the elimination of Hamas and the achievement of all the war’s goals,” he added.
Netanyahu this week unveiled a plan for post-war Gaza that envisages civil affairs being run by Palestinian officials without links to Hamas.
It also says Israel will continue with the establishment of a security buffer zone inside Gaza along the territory’s border.
The plan has been rejected by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and drawn criticism from Washington.


Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens

Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens
Updated 40 min 3 sec ago
Follow

Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens

Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens
  • Several Israeli media outlets said Israel tacitly approved a deal and that Israel would send a delegation to Qatar for further discussions
  • Hamas says it has not yet been involved in the latest proposal developed by the US, Egypt and Qatar

JERUSALEM: Israel’s war cabinet has discussed the next steps for negotiations toward a hostage deal and ceasefire in its war with Hamas, as concern deepens over the increasingly desperate situation faced by civilians in the devastated Gaza Strip.

Mediators made progress on an agreement for a weekslong cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and the release of dozens of hostages held in Gaza as well as Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, Israeli media reported Sunday.

Several Israeli media outlets, citing unnamed officials, said it tacitly approved the deal and that Israel would send a delegation to Qatar for further discussions.
Hamas says it has not yet been involved in the latest proposal developed by the United States, Egypt and Qatar, but the reported outline largely matches its earlier demands for the first phase of a truce. 

Meanwhile, an Israeli delegation that had traveled to Paris for fresh talks on a hostage deal returned to brief the country’s war cabinet on Saturday night, according to an official and local media reports.
National security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a televised interview shortly before the meeting that the “delegation has returned from Paris — there is probably room to move toward an agreement.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the meeting would discuss the “next steps in the negotiations.”
Local media later reported that the meeting had concluded with the cabinet agreeing to send a delegation to Qatar in the coming days to continue the talks.
As with a previous week-long truce in November that saw more than 100 hostages freed, Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been spearheading efforts to secure a deal.
Domestic pressure on the government to bring the captives home has also steadily mounted, with thousands gathering in Tel Aviv Saturday night at what has come to be known as “Hostages Square” to demand swifter action.
“We keep telling you: bring them back to us! And no matter how,” said Avivit Yablonka, 45, whose sister Hanan was kidnapped on October 7.
Anti-government protesters were also out in Tel Aviv, blocking streets and calling for Netanyahu’s government to step down as authorities deployed water cannon and mounted officers in a bid to disperse them.
“They are not choosing the right path for us. Whether it’s (the) economy, whether it’s peace with our neighbors,” 54-year-old software company CEO Moti Kushner said of the government, adding “it looks like they never want to end the war.”
After more than four months of shortages inside the besieged Gaza Strip, the World Food Programme said this week its teams had reported “unprecedented levels of desperation,” while the United Nations warned that 2.2 million people were on the brink of famine.
In northern Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, bedraggled children held out plastic containers and battered cooking pots for what little food was available.
Supplies are running out, with aid agencies unable to get into the area because of the bombing, while the trucks that do try to get through face frenzied looting.
“We the grown-ups can still make it, but these children who are four and five years old, what did they do wrong to sleep hungry and wake up hungry?” one man said angrily.
Residents have resorted to eating scavenged scraps of rotten corn, animal fodder unfit for human consumption and even leaves.
The health ministry said on Saturday that a two-month-old baby identified as Mahmud Fatuh had died of “malnutrition” in Gaza City.
Save the Children said the risk of famine would continue to “increase as long as the government of Israel continues to impede the entry of aid into Gaza.”
Israel has defended its track record on allowing aid into Gaza, saying that 13,000 trucks carrying relief supplies had entered the territory since the start of the war.
The war began after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.
Hamas militants also took hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 29,606 people, mostly women and children, according to a Saturday tally from Gaza’s health ministry.
The ministry said early Sunday that another 98 people had been killed overnight, with the Hamas media office reporting strikes along the length of the territory, from Beit Lahia in the north to Rafah in the south.
An AFP reporter said there had been a number of air strikes on Saturday evening in Rafah, a city along the territory’s southern border with Egypt where hundreds of thousands of Gazans have fled to escape fighting elsewhere.
The presence of so many civilians packed into the area has sparked concerns over Israeli plans for troops to finally push into the city, the last major urban center they have yet to enter.
Despite the concerns, including from key ally the United States, Netanyahu signalled Saturday night that the expected push had not been abandoned, adding that “at the beginning of the week, I will convene the cabinet to approve the operational plans for action in Rafah, including the evacuation of the civilian population from there.”
“Only a combination of military pressure and firm negotiations will lead to the release of our hostages, the elimination of Hamas and the achievement of all the war’s goals,” he added.
Netanyahu this week unveiled a plan for post-war Gaza that envisages civil affairs being run by Palestinian officials without links to Hamas.
It also says Israel will continue with the establishment of a security buffer zone inside Gaza along the territory’s border.
The plan has been rejected by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and drawn criticism from Washington.


Economy another victim of war in impoverished Sudan

Economy another victim of war in impoverished Sudan
Updated 25 February 2024
Follow

Economy another victim of war in impoverished Sudan

Economy another victim of war in impoverished Sudan
  • With most banks out of service, the only exchange rate that matters to ordinary Sudanese is on the black market, where the dollar currently goes for around 1,200 Sudanese pounds

PORT SUDAN, Sudan: Before the Sudanese army and paramilitary fighters turned their guns on each other last year, Ahmed used to sell one of Sudan’s main exports: gum arabic, a vital ingredient for global industry.
Now he’s out of business, and his story encapsulates the broader economic collapse of Sudan during 10 months of war.
Since combat between two rival generals began on April 15, Ahmed has been at the fighters’ mercy.
“When the war began, I had a stock of gum arabic in a warehouse south of Khartoum that was intended for export,” Ahmed told AFP, asking to use only his first name for fear of retaliation.
“To get it out I had to pay huge sums to the Rapid Support Forces,” the paramilitaries commanded by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo who are at war with the Sudanese Armed Forces led by Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan.
“I had to pay multiple times in areas under their control, before my cargo got to areas controlled by the government,” Ahmed said.
But the government — loyal to the army — “then demanded I pay taxes” on the product, an emulsifying agent used in everything from soft drinks to chewing gum.
When the trucks finally made it to Port Sudan for export on the Red Sea, “authorities again asked for new taxes, and I had to pay storage fees six times more than before the war,” Ahmed said.
His gum arabic — like many other Sudanese products — never made it onto a ship. According to Sudan’s port authorities, international trade fell 23 percent last year.
The finance ministry, which didn’t set a national budget for 2023 or 2024 and has foregone quarterly reports, recently raised the exchange rate for imports and exports from 650 Sudanese pounds to 950.
But that is still far below the currency’s real value.
With most banks out of service, the only exchange rate that matters to ordinary Sudanese is on the black market, where the dollar currently goes for around 1,200 Sudanese pounds.
“It’s a sign of the destruction of the Sudanese economy,” former Sudanese Chamber of Commerce head Al-Sadiq Jalal told AFP.
To make matters worse, a communications blackout since early February has hampered online transactions — which Sudanese relied on to survive.
The war has led industries to cease production. Others were destroyed. Businesses and food stocks have been looted.
The World Bank in September said “widespread destruction of Sudan’s economic foundations has set the country’s development back by several decades.”
The International Monetary Fund has predicted that even after the fighting ends, “years of reconstruction” await the northeast African country.
Sudan suffered under a crippled economy for decades and was already one of the world’s poorest countries before the war.
Under the Islamist-backed regime of strongman Omar Al-Bashir, international sanctions throttled development, corruption was rampant, and South Sudan split in 2011 with most of the country’s oil production.
Bashir’s ouster by the military in 2019 following mass protests led to a fragile transition to civilian rule accompanied by signs of economic renewal and international acceptance.
A 2021 coup by Burhan and Dagalo, before they turned on each other, began a new economic collapse when the World Bank and the United States suspended vital international aid.
More than six million of Sudan’s 48 million people have been internally displaced by the war, and more than half the population needs humanitarian aid to survive, according to the United Nations.
Thousands of people have been killed, including between 10,000 and 15,000 in a single city in the western Darfur region, according to UN experts.
Now the indirect death toll is also rising.
Aid agencies have long warned of impending famine, and the UN’s World Food Programme is “already receiving reports of people dying of starvation,” the agency’s Sudan director Eddie Rowe said in early February.
The Sudanese state “is completely absent from the scene” in all sectors, economist Haitham Fathy told AFP.
Chief among those is agriculture, which could have helped stave off hunger.
Before the war, agriculture generated 35-40 percent of Sudan’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank, and employed 70-80 percent of the workforce in rural areas, the International Fund for Agricultural Development said.
But the war has left more than 60 percent of the nation’s agricultural land out of commission, according to Sudanese research organization Fikra for Studies and Development.
In the wheat-growing state of Al-Jazira, where RSF fighters took over swathes of farmland south of Khartoum, farmers have been unable to tend their crops. They saw their livelihoods wither away.
From the wheat fields to Ahmed’s gum arabic warehouse, the story is the same.
His savings spent, his stock gone and his future bleak, Ahmed — like much of Sudan’s business class — has closed up shop.