‘There goes the neighborhood’

Residents want barrier around Walaja rerouted.

Walaja 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Walaja 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ahmad Barghouth looks down from his balcony at the bulldozer flattening a path around the edge of his fruit tree grove.
“There goes another almond tree,” says the 63-year-old farmer with agitation, as the bulldozer advances.
The machine is clearing the way for the security barrier that’s planned to surround Barghouth’s village, Walaja, which sits on a southern stretch of Jerusalem’s municipal border, not far from the settlement of Har Gilo. At the entrance to the village, cranes are putting up the first tall, gray, concrete sections of wall.
This was on Tuesday of last week. Two days earlier, the Supreme Court gave attorneys for the state 45 days to explain why the barrier should not be rerouted as Walaja’s 2,400 residents have requested. The Supreme Court ruling, however, didn’t prohibit the bulldozers and cranes from continuing their work.
“They’ve been here for a month. They tore down 82 of my olive trees,” says Barghouth, a striking man with bronzed skin and tufted silver hair.
He points to a small cemetery plot on the other side of the bulldozer’s path, saying that’s where his mother, father and grandfather are buried.
“The wall is supposed to run right between us,” he says. “How am I going to visit their graves?” The State Attorney’s Office says it has ideas on how to alleviate that problem, and the Supreme Court told Barghouth to take it up with a lower appeals court.
Walaja is one of many Palestinian villages where life is being disrupted by the West Bank security barrier, but activists who’ve taken part in local demonstrations say this village’s case is special. “It’s like a microcosm of the occupation,” says Joseph Dana, who’s making a documentary about Walaja’s predicament.
For one thing, settlers want to build a gigantic new neighborhood of Jerusalem, Givat Yael – spilling over the municipal border and into the West Bank – on land that Walaja claims as its own. (Jerusalem’s municipal border cuts through the village, leaving about two-thirds of it in the West Bank.)
“We bought the land with good money,” says Meir Davidson, a Givat Yael organizer and former activist in Ateret Cohanim, which relocates Jews into Arab parts of Jerusalem by purchasing Arab property through disputed means.
“Jerusalem needs housing, and Givat Yael will provide housing for 45,000 people,” he said during a recess in the Supreme Court hearing. “We don’t mean the villagers of Walaja any harm at all.”
The villagers say there was never any sale of land to the settlers. Their attorney, Ghiath Nassir, cites Supreme Court findings that the settlers’ documentation of the alleged sale was wholly inconclusive.
The Jerusalem Municipality has not taken an official position on Givat Yael, but Yossi Levy, spokesman for the would-be builders, acknowledges that US opposition to construction over the Green Line makes it unlikely that the settlement would be approved, let alone built, anytime soon.
“But in another three or four years, when it becomes clear that there’s no other land to build on in Jerusalem, then we believe the situation will change,” Levy says.
The settlers, too, want to change the route of the security barrier, which would cut through Givat Yael and destroy any prospects of it getting built. The “greens,” led by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, cite different reasons, saying the current route would destroy the old, scenic agricultural terraces on the slopes of Walaja. The Jerusalem Municipality wants to change the route so it doesn’t cut through city land, interfering with nature, planning and municipal services.
The Defense Ministry, however, is standing by the current route, noting the 2006 lower court ruling that, in the ministry’s words, found the route “the best from a security standpoint and in compliance with the court’s demands to limit damage to the Palestinians’ way of life and to the scenic natural environment.”
IN WALAJA, though, the impact of the impending barrier is most immediately felt. Following the path of the bulldozers, it will tear down additional trees and greenery belonging to homeowners such as Barghouth, literally overshadow their link with the hills beyond their front doors and cut them off from over 1,000 dunams of farmland belonging to the village.
A map of the route of the barrier shows it encircling the village nearly completely, save for an access route to Bethlehem and its environs.
Another aspect of the Walaja story that sets it apart from other Palestinian villages importuned by the security barrier is its history. “We lost all our land in 1948, and now they want to take what’s left,” says Ahmad Barghouth. Standing on his balcony, he points toward the Israeli side of the Green Line in the distance. “Up there is [Moshav] Aminadav. Below that is the site of the old village, the original Walaja,” he says.
Before the 1948 war, Walaja was a village inside what was to become the State of Israel. “There were about 2,500 people in the village, and they fled during the war. They went to refugee camps in Jordan, in Lebanon.” Barghouth, a year old, was taken with his family to live in one of those camps. “I’m a Palestinian refugee,” he says.
Over the next few years, some of the villagers moved to the land where Walaja now stands and began to rebuild. “The Jordanians were the rulers,” he notes. Then came the Six Day War, when Israel conquered the West Bank and began building housing for Jews on land claimed by Palestinians.
After the wars of 1948 and 1967, Walaja lost most of its land.
“Our village was the richest in land in the whole Jerusalem area,” Barghouth says. “Before 1948 we had 70,000 dunams, then we lost about 30,000 dunams in the war, then [after 1967] they took more of our land to build Har Gilo and Gilo.They chased us all the way over here, and now they want to take this, too.”
Barghouth, however, may well be exaggerating about Walaja’s former land wealth. Web site Palestine Remembered, not exactly a Zionist hasbara organ, usually takes its figures on pre-1948 Palestinian villages from the 1945 British census, the most reliable source available. According to Palestine Remembered, Walaja had 17,708 dunams of land before losing it to the 1948 “Israeli occupation.”
A source connected to Givat Yael says the village has not been a security threat. “The residents aren’t hostile to Israel, not at all. Most of them work in Jerusalem,” says the source.
Barghouth used to be a plumbing contractor in Jerusalem, but the intifada ended that and he turned to farming. “But with the wall, I won’t be able to tend my land.”
He lives with his wife and five children, with a son and daughter living in Arab east Jerusalem. “They can visit me, but I can’t visit them without a permit,” he says, noting that although part of Walaja is in Jerusalem, the residents carry the “orange” or “green” ID cards of the Palestinian Authority, so they need a permit from the Civil Administration to enter the capital. He showed me the permit he had allowing him to attend the Supreme Court hearing; it was valid July 25 only, from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“The only services we get from the Jerusalem Municipality are bulldozers,” he says. Forty-two homes have been demolished in the village for lack of building permits. “There’s no point in applying for a building permit because we won’t get it,” he adds. The municipality declined to comment on this charge.
He looks down from the balcony at where the bulldozers are grinding away. “Another almond tree gone,” he says.