Construction has begun on a new section of the West Bank security barrier that Palestinians say could sound a death knell for their hamlet.
The barrier threatens to outright smother Walajeh: The community of about 2,000 on the southwest edge of Jerusalem is to be completely encircled by a fence cutting it off from most of its open land, according to a Defense Ministry map.
Walajeh old-timers are determined to stay, but doubt their children will feel the same way.
“We will cling to the village by our teeth,” said Adel Atrash, a village council member. “But we don’t know how the next generation will look at things. Maybe they won’t be able to live with all the difficulties and decide to leave.”
Israel began building the barrier in 2002, as a bulwark against Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen who have killed hundreds of Israelis. However, the barrier’s zigzag through the West Bank brought allegations that Israel is drawing a border and grabbing land by putting dozens of settlements on the “Israeli side” of the barrier.
Six years ago on Friday, the International Court of Justice said in a nonbinding ruling that the barrier’s path through “occupied territory” violates international law and that Israel should tear down what it has built.
Israel rejected the decision, saying the barrier is crucial for keeping Israelis safe, and denies it is drawing a border.
“In future negotiations [with the Palestinian Authority], the route of the security barrier will not constitute a political factor,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.
Today, the barrier, almost two-thirds complete, runs for more than 400 kilometers through the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Once finished, the barrier would put 9.4 percent of the West Bank on the Israeli side, along with 85% of half a million Israeli settlers, according to a UN report.
The barrier – walls of cement slabs in urban areas and wire fences in the countryside – has made it harder for tens of thousands of Palestinians to reach farm land, schools and medical care.
Those who live in the “seam zone” between Israel and the barrier or have farm land there need permits they can’t always obtain and cross through gates that aren’t always open, according to the UN report, issued on the anniversary of the world court ruling.
Walajeh’s fate appears to be because it is almost surrounded by settlements.
The barrier will make a large dip into the West Bank to keep the settlements, including Har Gilo and the Gush Etzion bloc, on the Israeli side. Within that pocket, an extra loop of barrier is to surround Walajeh on three sides, with a fenced road off limits to Palestinians to Har Gilo closing off the fourth side, according to the Defense Ministry map of the projected route.
Moreover, the loop runs tightly around Walajeh’s builtup area, penning it within less than a square mile and isolating it from almost all its farmlands. Of 36 Palestinian villages that are or will be caught in the seam zone, none are as closely encircled as Walajeh, said Ray Dolphin, a UN barrier expert in Jerusalem.
Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror said on Friday he could not comment on the details of construction around Walajeh, but noted the route withstood a challenge in an Israeli court four years ago.
The IDF would not comment on how villagers are to get in and out of their enclave.
Israel has raised the possibility of an access road with a checkpoint, Atrash said, as well as gates so farmers could reach their lands. Residents are skeptical, considering the difficulties farmers elsewhere have had.
In recent weeks, bulldozers began leveling land and uprooting trees near Walajeh in the run-up to construction.
Ahmed Barghouti, 63, who lives close to the fence’s path, says he lost 88 olive trees last month and now fears for a nearby family burial plot. The village’s lawyer, Ghiath Nasser, says he won a temporary order to stop work on that section until the High Court of Justice decides what should be done with the graves of Barghouti’s parents and grandmother.
The house of a neighbor, Omar Hajajla, lies just outside Walajeh’s barrier loop.
Hajajla said Israeli officials last week informed him his home would be surrounded by its own electric fence.
“This is like putting my entire family in jail,” the father of three young boys said. “My children need to cross four gates to go school. We don’t know how it will work out, but I’m sure it will be hell for my entire family.”
The barrier is just the latest blow for Walajeh, which has lost most of its land to Israel in decades of conflict.
Israeli forces took control of the village in the 1948-9 War of Independence, and residents fled, some resettling on parts of its lands that ended up in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank.
After 1967, Israel expanded east Jerusalem’s boundaries and absorbed half of Walajeh.
But residents were still classified as West Bankers, not Jerusalemites, limiting their rights and freedom of movement.
Since then, Walajeh has lost more land to expanding settlements and roads, said Matteo Benatti, a UN official. From its pre-1948 size of 18,000 dunams (1,800 hectares), Walajeh now has around 4,500 dunams, nearly half of which will be cut off by the barrier if built as projected, he said.
Plans have been floated to build more homes for Israelis in the area. In November, the government gave preliminary approval to expand east Jerusalem’s nearby Gilo neighborhood.
Private developers propose building apartments for Israelis on the lands
surrounding Walajeh and have been lobbying to include the village on
the Israeli side of the barrier, so far to no avail. Dror, the Defense
Ministry spokesman, said he did not believe the developers would get
their plan approved.
Also, more than two dozen houses in Walajeh have been demolished over
the years and 41 out of about 200 remaining homes face Israeli
demolition orders on grounds they were built without permits, said Meir
Margalit, a Jerusalem city council member from Meretz. Margalit says
permits are impossible to obtain.
Walajeh faces an uphill battle for survival, said Margalit.
“In any scenario, my feeling is that Walajeh will disappear,” he said.