Kafkaesque, local style

Residents of Walaja find their village being turned into a tourist attraction.

Israeli soldiers run during clashes with Palestinian protesters at a protest marking the 66th anniversary of Nakba, in the West Bank village of El Walaja near Bethlehem May 15, 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli soldiers run during clashes with Palestinian protesters at a protest marking the 66th anniversary of Nakba, in the West Bank village of El Walaja near Bethlehem May 15, 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the daily reality of this region, good intentions are not always enough, and absurdity is never that far away. This goes for the small Arab village of Walaja, located in southwest Jerusalem, within the city’s jurisdiction since 1967.
Good intentions in this particular case involve a wide range of actions taken by the some 4,500 residents of the village, which until 1948 was located on what today are the Ora and Aminadav moshavim. The residents of Walaja fled and dispersed over several refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, also finding new homes in North and South America.
Those who remained here realized soon after the end of the Six Day War that the Jerusalem Municipality, then under mayor Teddy Kollek, was happy to incorporate its lands but somehow ignore its residents, the majority of whom, to this day, do not have Jerusalem residents’ ID cards.
As a result, during the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, some residents of Walaja were arrested on the grounds of dwelling in their own homes, which were in Israeli territory, resulting in their being considered illegal aliens.
But that was then. Today, their major concern is the decision to continue the construction of the security barrier (surrounding the city) and turning a large part of their land into a national park. The reason this area was chosen by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to become a national park is due mainly to the fact that the village’s traditional agricultural practices have, over the centuries, preserved the famous “terrace agriculture” particular to this region. The villagers cannot understand why the fact that they have observed such an antique tradition has turned against them. Two weeks ago official decrees were distributed in the village, announcing that the land would be requisitioned for the purpose of preserving the site and turning it into a tourist attraction.
Yet there is no question that the new national park – planned along the line of the terraces, including access to one of the local springs – will add a lot to the development of the area. Moreover, tourism may improve the villagers’ quality of life. As for the confiscation of the land, there will be legally mandated compensation paid by the state.
Walaja is a very peaceful village. During the almost 50 years of Israeli presence, there hasn’t been even one act of violence perpetrated by any of its residents. Even now, with the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism, there are only two small mosques in the village. One of them didn’t seem too overcrowded at prayer time on the Friday afternoon this journalist visited the place.
At Nawual Halil’s home, his wife Eman, two of his neighbors and three of his seven children enjoy the sunny morning and immediately bring out cups of tea and coffee. Halil once had a small flock of goats, as did most of his neighbors. Since they have lost most of their pasture lands, confiscated for the construction of the patrol road that runs along the security barrier, there are no more goats or sheep, which has affected the family’s income.
Halil, like most of his neighbors, does not have a permit to work within the country in construction. In order to obtain a few days of work over the month, he needs to pay a “macher”: usually a Palestinian who obtains a few permits under the table and sells them at NIS 2,000 per month to Palestinians like Halil, who would do anything to obtain a permit to work in Israel.
And now, the newest threat for Nawual and his neighbors (mostly a large tribe) are the newcomers – Palestinians who flee the skyrocketing prices of housing in the city’s Arab sector or the unbearable conditions in the neighborhoods beyond the barrier and move to Walaja.
“They have the Jerusalem resident’s card,” says Halil, “so they work and they have money. They come here and build large villas, while we barely survive – with no goats, no agriculture and no permits to work in Israel or even inside Jerusalem.”
Sources within the municipality respond that some village residents have indeed obtained Jerusalem residents’ cards, and their numbers may increase – at the same time that the barrier is constructed.