By former EA Zara, Southern West Bank
Once described as the most beautiful village in Palestine, al-Walaja steeps over the vast agricultural lands of the Cremisan Valley, just 20km from Jerusalem. This would be a walkers’ paradise but as we make the bumpy car journey to the village to meet the local mayor, there is little glimpse of the rich, green landscape, nor of the holy city beyond.
The view is hidden behind an eight-metre concrete wall, topped with barbed wire, part of the West Bank separation barrier.
Following the 1948 Six Day War, around 70 per cent of al-Walaja was annexed to Israel. Additional land has since been confiscated for the construction of the barrier and the nearby Israeli settlements of Har Gilo and Gilo.
The mayor of al-Walaja explains that prior to the building of the separation barrier the village was a thriving agricultural area, providing many of the fruits and vegetables for nearby Haifa and Jerusalem. Now things are different. Many of al-Walaja’s inhabitants are farmers whose land has either been confiscated, or is trapped on the other side of the Barrier. “Farmers must obtain permits from Israel to reach their own land” the mayor explains. “One farmer recently requested a permit to harvest his olive trees. They gave him access for three days, for four and a half hours each day. This is insufficient to work his land and harvest all his olives.”
As well as the obvious day-to-day impact on livelihoods, land access restrictions also present a more long-term concern. Under Israeli law, if farmers cannot prove their land has been worked continuously for a number of years, it becomes state owned and is permanently confiscated.
“Farmers must obtain permits from Israel to reach their own land” – Mayor of Al
The Israeli government’s official line is that the separation barrier has been built for security purposes, and some cite the decreased number of suicide bombings that have occurred since its erection as evidence.
The mayor of al-Walaja however is unconvinced. “They could have put the wall far away from the houses” he says, “this would have been safer as people couldn’t throw stones… but they have built it so close that there is no space left for the village.” His conclusion is clear: “They want land!” The route of the wall, built mostly on Palestinian land, was deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004.
Like a number of other West Bank villages, al-Walaja is geographically complex, spread across Area C (fully under the jurisdiction of Israel), Area B (under the jurisdiction of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority) and the Jerusalem Municipality.
The section of the village under the Jerusalem Municipality finds itself in a particularly complex position. On one hand, Israel claims jurisdiction over all of Jerusalem and therefore control of this area. On the other, “because it’s inhabited by Palestinians” suggests the mayor, they do not provide any of the services, leaving this to the Palestinian Authority. Israel does not maintain or develop al-Walaja, nor the homes within it, and attempts from villagers to do so directly are met almost unanimously with a punitive response.
On 24 September, the military arrived to stop workers resurfacing the only entrance road to the village, halting them half way through and leaving the road unfinished. A bulldozer and a tractor were both confiscated, the tractor being released some weeks later in exchange for a ₪12,000 fine. Every villager in this area has been given a ‘stop work’ order to forbid them from repairing or developing their homes. Five houses were demolished in May this year the mayor explains, and 33 others have current demolition orders.
“It’s like we’re living in a home we do not own”. Such civilian house demolitions are illegal under international law – they are not for military necessity – and have been interpreted by a number of organisations as a strategy by Israel to displace Palestinians.
On 12 November Israeli forces notified al-Walaja’s residents of their plans to move a nearby military checkpoint closer to the village, deeper into the West Bank territories. If this goes ahead, it will result in the confiscation of another 296 acres of agricultural land, separating countless more locals from their livelihoods and making the essential Ein Haniya water spring inaccessible to them.
Israel notified residents of the intention to turn the confiscated land into a national park, ironically citing the fact that it had been well-tended and carefully maintained by al-Walaja’s residents as a reason.
According to the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee rights, “under international law, it is prohibited for the occupying power to assume sovereignty over occupied territory and to incorporate it into its own state.”
Sign this petition and support the residents of al-Walaja in their appeal to Israel to scrap plans to move the military checkpoint and confiscate further land.
Yesh Din is an Israeli organization working to uphold human rights in the West Bank. It has a position paper, Land Takeover Practices Employed by Israel in the West Bank, which shows the situation here in al-Walaja replicated widely across the West Bank.