Battir after being Transformed into a Touristic Attraction ... Voices Break the Silence and Reveal the Other Face
By: Ruba Anabtawi
Historic Battir Pool
Exclusive to Environment and Development Horizons:
Battir was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list four years ago as a result of its threatened fragrant history. Following its UNESCO recognition, the village began to transform into a touristic area, visited by Palestinians from all over the country and foreigners who started to place Battir on their list of must see places in Palestine. At the same time, this "tourism boom" preceded the implementation of an adequate infrastructure to provide an appropriate atmosphere for organized visitation. This has placed stress on local communities and thus many voices of locals have broken their silence and cried out about the dark side of the sudden tourism in Battir.
Battir, which means "bird house" in Canaanite, is a homogenous village that still retains its rural character in terms of agriculture and urban lifestyle. It has a population of 5 thousand people, on an area of 7 thousand dunums. It’s characterized by its agricultural gardens and water springs that are distributed on agricultural lands according to a cooperative community system. Battir also has a historical and national value. In 1949, after the Rhodes agreement, Hasan Mustafa, the national activist, succeeded in obtaining the right of access to agricultural lands that were supposed to be confiscated for the train whose station was canceled, from the UN Security Council. He retained the right to access the village lands.
Battir and parts of the Al-Makhrur, Al-Khader, and Housan villages were included in the World Heritage List in 2014 as vulnerable sites due to social, cultural, and geo-political changes that have begun to cause irreparable damage to the villages.
The landscape of the Battir hills, which are located a few kilometers Southwest of Jerusalem, have a series of agricultural valleys characterized by stone terraces, some of which are used to produce beans, while others are cultivated with vineyards and olive trees according to the UNESCO website. The development of these agricultural terraces in this very mountainous environment was based on an irrigation network fed by groundwater sources. The water collected from this network is distributed through a traditional system to the eight families of Battir and utilized to irrigate their agricultural lands.
The daughter of the social thinker and national activist Hassan Mustafa, Nadia Al-Butma, runs a cultural center named after her father. Al-Butma believes that the recent increase in commercial tourism will affect the family and community relations and its future in a detrimental way.
She says "Everyone is promoting tourism in Battir and exaggerating its beauty, but no one is aware of the changes this attention has brought to our society, which in the past and present has been a model of development that no one has seen before." Al-Butma fears there will be a new trend in the village to sell lands and houses to foreigners, following the recent increase in tourism movement. As a result, she is concerned the beautiful old houses will turn into investment projects, even at the expense of neighbors or parents. Al-Butma states, “For example, nowadays we see brothers selling their share in the family house that separates the brothers only by a wall. This trend is increasing because of the high value of land, which is resulting from Battir's transformation into a touristic area. This threatens the cohesive social structure of the village.”
Al-Butma, is interested in documenting the culinary heritage and the customs of the Palestinian countryside. She criticized what is currently happening in Battir by saying that the village is not qualified to receive tourism in terms of preparations for public places and services. Al-Butma added “everyone walks without order or planning, they barbeque under the olive trees and they enter private agricultural land and pick fruits that the owners have waited a full season for.”
Al-Butma pointed to the role of the villagers in protesting against the location of a bus stop that would be next to the houses of Battir. Al-Butma’s commentary prompted the "Municipality of Battir" to change the bus station’s location to another place more acceptable by the population.
Al-Butma objected some historical fallacies from the municipality in regard to the main monument of Battir, “the water pond." The municipality dated this to the Roman period, but Al-Butma claims that it is a local Palestinian community system. She states that the Romans are colonists and tax collectors who have opened the roads to traders and are not founders of agricultural water systems. Al-Butma criticized the restoration of “the seven widows” neighborhood streets, which were replaced with stone tiles instead of asphalt. When she asked about the reason, the municipality answered that the stones were reminiscent of the Roman style, which Butma sees as a continuation of referring the lands of Battir to the Roman civilization.
Some abusers ... but balance is required
Wissam Owainah, a farmer who shares the ownership of 15 dunums of land with his family, has one dunum located in the Al-Janan touristic area. Owainah says that he has noticed some damage to his land from some of the new visitors, but he says that the majority of tourists are harmless and preserve touristic and agricultural sites.
He stressed that the tourism movement must be balanced between two parties: the beneficiaries who work in the tourism sector such as the guides, investors, and tourism offices, and between the peasants who are supported by marketing their products at a better price than the normal, local, market without having to go to the city.
Owainah adds that some visitors see Battir as recreational land, using it for hiking and barbeque, even at the expense of agricultural lands. As a solution to storming the agricultural lands, Owainah refuses the idea of putting wires around the lands; instead he believes that the solution will follow the establishment of a special bus station. Owainah proposes that a bus station supervised by an employee who provides the guides and tourists with a map of the area that includes instructions for the visit, in addition to registering the name of the guide and the number of the tourist group to facilitate follow-up, will help create a more organized system for visits.
It is not denied that Battir could one day become strange to its people, much like other cities and villages visited by tourists around the world that have been abandoned by their people. Owainah has stressed that the situation may not reach this point if the tourism can be organized in terms of providing an adequate infrastructure, suitable for a large number of tourists.
Owainah concluded by saying, "Any unusual movement with a large number of tourists will disturb the people. Therefore, we should evaluate the current situation and determine the pros and cons and try to develop them.”
Mayor of Battir responds to community objections
The mayor of Battir, Tayseer Qattoush, responds to most of the local community’s objections, by explaining that the village's status is a result of its entry into the World Heritage list. He notes that he recognizes Battir’s newfound prestige in international and local fame has transformed the small village in just a few short years into a touristic attraction. Simultaneously, he agrees with the community members that tourism has preceded the existence of an adequate infrastructure.
Qattoush stated, “We cannot go back to the Stone Age and abolish tourism. The world has changed and we should not remain in the past. We have to adapt to the new reality and with the new tourism."
In recognition of the community’s importance, Qattoush says that he has taken part in the "Local Development Plan of Battir (2018-2021),” which was prepared as a request by the Municipal Council's Advisory Office of the Ministry of Local Government. This plan aims to develop the village in terms of services, heritage, environment, and agriculture. Part of the plan was focused on tourism through the establishment of bus stops, infrastructure, public bathrooms, and large streets. Qattoush refuses the idea of canceling tourism as a whole, describing this request as incorrect and irrational.
Concerning the contemplated establishment of the bus station next to the houses, which was changed after the community objection, Qatoush says that this proposed bus station in the middle of a residential neighborhood was not an authoritative example, but that merely these types of stations can be found in many cities and villages without causing pollution or inconvenience. Qatoush has noted that the suggested location was appropriate in terms of the touristic plan from Wadi al-Makharur to Al Khader, and then to Hossan and Battir. He notes that he thinks the new location is a little far. Aside from finding a location, Qutoush explains that problems between the heirs on land leasing are still hindering the project imlementation.
Qutoush believes that improving infrastructure, including sanitation, is crucial for Battir, but he claims that the lack of permanent funding sources for the municipality remains a problem for implementation. All the municipality receives is small support from civil society institutions, local government, and the municipal fund.
When asked about the residents' complaints regarding the lack of public bathrooms and the common occurrence of tourists entering local community members’ homes to use the bathroom, Qutoush stressed that this situation has been exaggerated. He also points out that the strategic plan includes the construction of public toilets in two locations, one next to the bus station and another next to the Mosque.
Qutoush says that the attack on agricultural lands is not only from local and foreign tourists, but also from the villagers and unorganized individual tourism. He pointed out to the municipality's desire to help the youth and develop their skills to become touristic guides for Battir instead of spending their time on the roads.
Qutoush says, “Tourists are supposed to be clean and not harm the place. The majority of our visitors have ethics. There are only a few that are sometimes difficult to control."
Local community is the main beneficiary
Qatoush stressed the need to accept tourists of the village and work together to develop tourism. He noted that this collaboration would assure the municipality does not benefit from tourism financially, that the supervision of Battir is a mandate and not honor, and that the first beneficiaries of the tourism would be the local community members, as most of the investors are people of Battir.
In support of the farmers, the municipality of Batir organizes a "popular market" each Friday and Saturday. This market includes 14-kiosks, supported by the Heritage Preservation Center with the ministry of tourism. The farmers sell their products and the women of Battir, and the surrounding villages, sell their handmade and homemade products at prices much better than those of the local market.
People also were objecting on depriving the Hasan Mustafa School from the main yard for other uses, Qatoush replied saying that it was never for the school, but rather used by the municipality to organize cultural events, festivals, and the popular market. He says the yard has a football and tennis playground, but that these are not restricted to any party, rather they are there to serve the whole local community.
Qatoush noted the municipality’s intention, within its strategic plan, is to establish a tourism office that could organize the entry and exit of groups and coordinate with tour guides and other offices to ensure better organized tourism in Battir.
Translated by: Ghadeer Kamal Zaineh