Zafrir Rinat | Jun. 10, 2020

Groups warn that zone planned by Betar Ilit will damage both water sources for nearby villages and an important ecological corridor for wildlife

A West Bank settlement seeks to build a large industrial zone that will endanger the water sources of nearby Palestinian villages as well an important ecological corridor, environmental groups say.

The Palestinians use the water for traditional agriculture. The ecological corridor, which spans both sides of the Green Line separating Israel from the West Bank, allows animals to travel from north to south.

The settlement, Betar Ilit, is planning a 600-dunam industrial zone to its north in an area known as the English Forest. It lies near the Palestinian villages of Wadi Fuchin, Battir and Husan and is also near the Green Line, in an area where the separation fence was never built.

Israel considers the land state land, and it’s in the part of the West Bank assigned to full Israeli control by the Oslo Accords. But Palestinians in the neighboring villages say the land actually belongs to them.

Aside from factories, the industrial zone is slated to include cemeteries, sports and recreation facilities and public buildings. The settlement hopes it will create additional jobs for its residents as well as more municipal tax revenue.

The plan has been submitted to Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank, which is slated to consider it in the coming weeks, once the period in which individuals and groups can file objections ends.

Opponents say the plan endangers the natural springs that Palestinian farmers use for irrigation. The springs and Battir’s terraced agriculture were even declared a UNESCO world heritage site six years ago.

Environmental groups have joined forces with the Palestinians to fight the plan. Joint fights against previous expansions of both Betar Ilit and nearby Tzur Hadassah have had some successes, including getting the Jerusalem district planning committee to rule that all construction plans must include a geohydrological survey to ensure that they won’t damage the groundwater or natural springs.

EcoPeace Middle East, an environmental group comprising Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians, is one group that submitted objections to the Betar Ilit industrial zone. Its submission to the Civil Administration says the construction would pave over some of the land through which rainwater seeps into the groundwater that feeds the springs.

Noting that construction of a new neighborhood in Tzur Hadassah had lowered the level of nearby springs, it wrote that “Identical work on the southern side of the basin will presumably cause similar harm.” It also cited the area’s cultural value as a reason to reject the plan.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel warned in its objections that the project would damage the ecological corridor.

Previous construction in Tzur Hadassah and Betar Ilit – both of which lie on the corridor’s eastern side – has already narrowed the corridor and created a bottleneck, it wrote. Construction of the separation fence in nearby areas has also narrowed the corridor, which enables wildflowers to propagate and animals to move from north to south.

For now, the corridor still functions; gazelles, wild boars, hyenas and caracals have all been spotted there in recent years. But SPNI said the new industrial zone would deal the corridor a death blow.

Husan resident Ziad Sabatin said residents of his village are divided over the plan.

“There are people who are for it because they think it will help with earning a living,” he said. “There are others who oppose it because it’s their private land that’s going to be built on. I’m worried over what will happen to nature and the springs.

“We’re in contact with Israelis who are helping us protect the springs, and they have experts who may be able to help us get a better understanding of what would happen,” he added. “But for now, we haven’t yet got answers.”

Betar Ilit declined to comment. But in the environmental impact study it submitted to the Civil Administration, it said any factories located in the zone would have to abide by the zone’s environmental bylaws. To protect the groundwater, no chemical plants or storehouses would be allowed there, it continued, and the construction plans will minimize the environmental damage.