Travel to West Bank: Battir
Battir lies perhaps five miles west of Bethlehem as the crow flies, but access is circuitous. The road runs far above the village and to its south, then drops down a steep hill facing north and levels out at the village mosque, center of the village. Battir used to be known to all visitors to the Holy Land, but that was back in the days when people took the train to Jerusalem--and when the train stopped at Battir for passengers and water. Battir was then part of a unified Palestine, not just a West Bank village. Its proximity to Israel--the Green Line follows the railroad here--probably has made village life harder, rather than easier.
The first of a series panning to the right. Here, the railway heads east oward Jerusalem, visible at the left background (the track follows a creek foul with the city's raw sewage). The hill in the center distance is scarred by a bypass road around Bethlehem, which lies on its far side. "I hate it," one resident said of that road. Battir's long history is closely tied to the spring that irrigates the crops shown in the foreground. The spring is just to the right.
Swinging to the right: the pond, fed by an open channel or chute, stores spring water for daytime use. The bypass road, still visible in the background, was built as a temporary road while a more dramatic one with tunnels and bridges was completed. There is very little traffic on it now, but it is still kept open, with border police making sure that West Bank Palestinians don't use it. It's only a couple of miles from the length of the road shown here to the Jerusalem Mall, with a Burger King and multiplex cinema. For the people of Battir, the distance might as well be measured in parsecs.
The camera takes in more of the irrigated valley. What appears as a kind of playground slide is the chute down which spring water cascades to a walled-in pond. The water flows all night, is measured in the morning, and divided each day among the landowners who are traditionally entitled to the water on that day of the week. A few years ago, the channel that brought water from the spring, in the right background, was replaced by a pipe. (Engineers think that efficiency justifies just about anything.) Above the chute is a school operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, still serving Palestinians after all these years. Farther up the hill, there is much new construction, of the utilitarian sort built across the West Bank since the Jordanian period.
The mosque-toe spring has irrigated terraced crops here probably for millennia. On the right, the terraces have been abandoned. Until 1949, the picture would have shown much more intensive agriculture, for the villagers since 1892 had been taking vegetables to Jerusalem on the early-morning train from Jaffa. The Armistice of 1949 left Battir as part of Jordan. What had been the most photographed highland village of Palestine became an isolated place, only partly rescued a few years later when the village's road was built so villagers could get to Bethlehem by something other than foot and donkey.
This picture was taken by sticking a camera into the pitch blackness of the Battir spring. What appeared to the eye as a black appears here as the mouth of a tunnel opened up heaven knows how many centuries ago. Pity that the flow from here to the storage pond was put into a pipe.
The Battir spring water cascades from the chute to the pond. Even though agriculture has declined in the village, the spring and irrigation system are still the village icons. Is there another? A few hundred yards away, behind the spot from which the first few pictures were taken, is a hill known to the villagers as "Khirbet el-Yehud," the ruin of the Jews. It's a hilltop besieged by the Romans in the second century when they finally crushed the last Jewish revolt. Israelis used to visit Battir to see the tragic site, but that was before the Intifada. Now it's a rare thing to see a car here with yellow--Israeli-- licence plates. When you do see one, chances are it belongs to a Palestinian from East Jerusalem.
The entrance to the abandoned house of Hasan Mustafa, the leading figure of Battir during the critical decade of the 1950s, when the village had just been severed from Jerusalem. He is remembered as a giant of his time, a man disinterested in his own advancement but deeply caring for the people of his village. He was well placed to do so, because he worked with the United Nations. Through his efforts, the road to Bethlehem was built, a telephone was installed, and schools and clinics were built. One of Hasan Mustafa's grandsons is presently lodged in a British prison, where he's serving a 20-year term for involvement in bombing Israel's embassy in London. It's a controversial case, still in the international press from time to time. Meanwhile, the house is empty, Hasan Mustafa is dead, and the son who inherited the house is a journalist in Europe.
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