Guest Column: Walaja's walls

If you believe that there are Israelis and Palestinians who want to lead peaceful lives with their neighbors, then the situation in this Palestinian village should worry you.

Soldiers scuffle (photo credit: AP)
Soldiers scuffle
(photo credit: AP)
This past Rosh Hodesh Av, I was at Jerusalem’s Malha mall enjoying my last chicken sandwich before the nine days. Afterward, I exited into the mall parking lot, and took a minute to look out over the hills in the background, noticing something I hadn’t seen before. There was a funny looking hilltop half covered in trees, half razed. I didn’t think much of it until a week later, when I learned the name of that place: Walaja.
As an Orthodox Jew who loves Israel, studied in its yeshivas and defended it from those who would delegitimize its existence on my campus, I know the real threat of hatred and violence against Jews that exists in the world. At the same time, as one who believes that every person, Jew or Arab, is made in the image of God, and that what is hateful to me I should not do to others and whose Zionist identity is rooted in what we read recently on Shabbat Hazon (Isaiah 1:27), “Zion shall be redeemed with justice, her returners with righteousness,” what I’ve learned about Walaja deeply disturbs me.
Walaja, sitting on the seam between Jerusalem and the West Bank, is home to about 2,000 Palestinian villagers.
The Green Line bisects it, which leads to conflicting zoning, residency confusion and legal problems. In 1967, a great deal of Walaja’s land was declared to be East Jerusalem, but its residents were given West Bank IDs.
This effectively made hundreds of villagers illegal residents in their own village and homes. Residents must go through the Interior Ministry in order to build, but the ministry has never approved a building plan for the village.
It is legally impossible to build, and dozens of houses, bathrooms, and other structures have been razed over the years (for which residents of Walaja receive a bill), with 45 houses currently under demolition orders.
Recent construction of the separation barrier has made things even more painful for residents. Since April, several hundred olive trees have been cut down in preparation for building the separation barrier, some of which will be a wall, and some an electrified fence in a 360 degree circle around the village. Entry and exit will be controlled by a single checkpoint.
In addition to completely surrounding Walaja, the proposed route will wrap closely around houses on the periphery of the village, separating villagers from their land. This will cut many of them off from their sources of income as farmers, as well as burial plots of their ancestors.
Already, 150 dunams of mostly private land have been taken in preparation for its construction. In April, this newspaper reported the story of Omar Hajajla, whose house lies just outside the barrier loop. Israeli officials recently informed him that his property will be surrounded on all four sides by a fence.
SOME MIGHT look at this situation and see the government protecting its citizens, with unfortunate collateral damage. Some see this story as part of a systemic plan to eliminate one of the few remaining Arab villages between Gilo and Gush Etzion. Others might see this story as a result of all-too-familiar Israeli bureaucratic confusion and red tape. Whatever political lens you look though, the results are the same: we are suffocating the village of Walaja.
If you believe that all Palestinians must permanently leave Israel and the West Bank, then perhaps Walaja’s suffocation is no big deal. But if you believe, like me, that Palestinians aren’t going to just disappear, then this situation should worry you. If you believe that as Jews we must hold our state to the highest possible standards of compassion and justice, this situation should anger you.
And if you believe that there are Israelis and Palestinians who want to lead normal lives in peace with their neighbors, but that possibility is slipping away, then Walaja should worry you.
Calling for change in Walaja does not undermine the death and pain of thousands of Israelis who have been killed or hurt by Palestinian violence. It does not undermine Israel’s right to exist or moral standing in the world. On the contrary, Walaja as it stands now undermines our own moral standing. The difficulties villagers face in building homes and getting residency rights support those who claim that Israel is functioning as an occupation state smothering Palestinian existence. The isolation of Walaja and the confiscation of farmlands, coupled with its proximity to surrounding Gilo and Har Gilo, strengthens the voices who say that the security barrier is functioning as a land grab.
If the village of Walaja is a security threat, why have we waited four years into its construction to finish the wall’s completion? And what is the relationship between Givat Yael, the proposed settlement that shows plans for 1,200 homes, some of them directly on top of existing homes in Walaja, and Walaja’s current suffocation?
Do we have the moral courage to take a hard look at the effects of our own policies?
Don’t get me wrong: Our security concerns are very real. We have very real enemies who want to destroy our state and our people. Paraphrasing the sage Hillel, “If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?” We must also remember, though, that the lives of the villagers in Walaja are real too. “If we are only for ourselves, what are we?”
At this moment, we are engaged in a process of encircling a village with walls and turning it into a ghetto, denying people access to their land, livelihoods and bones of their ancestors, completely disregarding the lives of the human beings living under Israeli jurisdiction.
“If not now, when?”
The writer is a rabbinical student and activist.