John Kerry needs to understand day-to-day life in the West Bank is there is to be any hope of peace

The state of roads in the West Bank tells you everything you need to know about the possibility of Middle East peace, writes Nabila Ramdani.

 The state of the roads in the West Bank gives a good idea of where the resumed Palestinian-Israeli talks are heading – and it certainly isn’t in the direction of peace. You can see a number of them from the hilltop town of al-Khader, just outside Bethlehem – from modern highways to rockstrewn dirt tracks. The best are designed for vehicles with registration plates bearing the Israeli flag and the country’s name written in Hebrew. Poor and dispossessed Arabs, whose transport is easily identified by green-numbered plates, have to stick to the back roads.
 
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, who is leading resumed diplomatic efforts in Jerusalem, would certainly be advised to check out the view from the heights of al-Khader. This week I saw constant Israeli army convoys heading off to strengthen Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian lands. The military will be even busier over the next few months after Tel Aviv approved the building of 3,100 new settler homes, many in East Jerusalem – the very place that Palestinian peacemakers want to be their capital city. On 12 August Kerry said the new Israeli colonies would not halt talks, explaining: “We have known there was going to be a continuation of some building.”
 
In fact, “some building” is by far the biggest stumbling block. Construction on land occupied by the Israelis following the 1967 Six Day War has been condemned by the United Nations and the International Court of Justice; no foreign government in the world officially supports it. 
 
The unbridled expansion of Jewish settlements in the very areas where Palestinians are supposed to have a state will add to the almost 700,000 illegal settlers in about 120 communities in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – all in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
 
Beyond the segregated roads – the fast, slick ones for Israelis and the slow, potholed ones for Palestinians – there is barbed wire, machine-gun posts and, most sinister of all, the West Bank Barrier. This is a 430-milelong wall keeping Palestinians out of their lands, which have diminished to less than 20 per cent of historic Palestine. Crossings, many of which I negotiated on foot, are like cattle grids, with only a very few people herded through following stringent security checks.
 
Israel claims that the barrier exists solely to protect civilians from attack, but it is undeniably the concrete symbol of the annexation of Palestinian territory. Attempts to reinforce the wall over the past few months have led to Arab farmland being cut off from al-Khader, leaving the already desperate agricultural workers with no living at all. When they complain, everything from tear gas and batons to live ammunition is used against them.
 
All of this is day-to-day life in the occupied territories. Unless Kerry can appreciate that, the road to peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict will be going nowhere. 
This is our land: peeking at a new settlers' commune in East Jerusalem. Photograph: Lior MIzrahi/Getty Images/

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Photo: Getty
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Sheepwrecked: how the Lake District shows up World Heritage's flaws

Here's hoping future statements about farming and the environment aren't quite so sheepish.

“Extremists like George Monbiot would destroy the Lake District,” tweeted Eric Robson, presenter of Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questions. But he’s “just standing up for nature”, others shot back in Monbiot’s defence. The cause of the clash? The park’s new World Heritage status and the continuing debate over the UK’s “sheep-wrecked” countryside.

Tension is such you can almost hear Cumbria’s Vikings chuckling in their hogback graves – for sheep farming still defines the Lakes as much as any poem. Hilltop farmers, like Lizzie Weir and Derek Scrimegeour, have sweated the landscape into shape over generations. And while Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud, a few hundred pairs of pricked ears were likely ruminating nearby.

UNESCO’s World Heritage committee now officially supports this pro-farm vision: “The most defining feature of the region, which has deeply shaped the cultural landscape, is a long-standing and continuing agro-pastoral tradition,” says the document which recommends the site for approval. 

And there’s much to like about the award: the region’s small, outdoor farms are often embedded in their local community and focused on improving the health and quality of their stock – a welcome reminder of what British farms can do at their best. Plus, with Brexit on the horizon and UK megafarms on the rise, farmers like these need all the spotlight they can get.

But buried in the details of the bid document is a table showing that three-quarters of the area's protected sites are in an “unfavourable condition”. So it is depressing that farming’s impact on biodiversity appears to have been almost entirely overlooked. Whether you agree with the extent of George Monbiot’s vision for Rewilding or not, there are clearly questions about nibbled forests and eroded gullies that need to be addressed – which are not mentioned in the report from UNESCO’s  lead advisory body, ICOMOS, nor the supplementary notes on nature conservation from IUCN.

How could so little scrutiny have been applied? The answer may point to wider problems with the way the World Heritage program presently works – not just in Cumbria but around the world.

In the Lake District’s case, the bid process is set-up to fail nature. When the convention was started back in the 1970s, sites could be nominated under two categories, either “cultural” or “natural”, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) advising on the first, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the second.

Then in 1992 a new category of “cultural landscape” was introduced to recognise places where the “combined works of nature and man” are exceptional. This means such sites are always evaluated principally by ICOMOS, giving them more resources to research and shape the verdict – and limiting the input IUCN is able to make.

Another weakness is that the evaluation bodies can only follow a state’s choice of category. So if a state nominates a site as a Cultural Landscape, then considerations about issues like biodiversity can easily end up taking a back seat.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, this situation is in need of redress. “The way in which this separation of nature and culture works is increasingly out of tune and counter-productive,” he says. “Every natural site has some kind of relationship with people, and every cultural site has some major conservation interest, even if it might not be globally significant. We should collaborate much more to make that a virtue of the system.”

The more you think about it, the madder the notion of a “Cultural Landscape” sounds. Landscapes are, after all, inherently scoped out by man, and there is little in the natural world that humanity has left untouched. Especially those in Western Europe and especially those, like Cumbria, that have been felled and farmed by a succession of historic invaders.

Relationships between advisory bodies are also not the only failing in UNESCO’s approach; relationships between nations and the convention can be problematic too. At this month’s meeting of the committee in Poland, it was decided that the Great Barrier Reef would, once again – and despite shocking evidence of its decline – not be on UNESCO’s “In Danger” list. It prompts the question, what on earth is the list for?

The reluctance of many nations to have their sites listed as In Danger is a mixed blessing, says Badman. In some cases, the prospect of being listed can motivate reform. But it is also a flawed tool – failing to include costed action plans – and causing some governments to fear attacks from their domestic opposition parties, or a decline in their tourism.

On top of this, there is the more generalised politicking and lobbying that goes on. Professor Lynn Meskell, an Anthropologist at Stanford University, is concerned that, over the years, the institution “has become more and more political”. At the most recent session of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month, she found nominations being used to inflame old conflicts, a continuing regional dominance by Europe, and a failure to open up many “at risk” sites for further discussion. “All Yemen’s sites are in danger, for instance” she says, “yet they couldn’t afford to even send one person."

Perhaps most challenging of all is the body’s response to climate change. At the recent committee gathering, Australia raised the subject by way of suggesting it cannot be held solely be responsible for the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. And Turkey attempted to water down a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming the language used was overly “technical” and that the delegates present were too inexpert to comment.

According to Tim Badman, climate change is certainly an area that needs further work, not least because World Heritage’s present policy on the subject is now a decade old. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the Paris Climate Agreement would still see very significant damage done to Heritage sites around the world, Badman says.

There is hope of change, however. For the most polite yet sturdy response to Turkey’s objections – or, as the chair ironically puts it “this very small ecological crisis” – I recommend watching these encouraging reactions from Portugal, Phillippines and Finland (2h30) -  a push-back on technical objections that Meskell says is rare to see. IUCN will also be producing the second edition of their World Heritage Outlook this November.

Positions on the Lake District’s farms will also hopefully be given further thought. Flaws within World Heritage’s approach may have helped pull wool over the committee’s eyes, but future debate should avoid being quite so sheepish.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.