How one Palestinian spring became a leisure spot for Israelis only

The spring that once belonged to the Palestinian village of Walajeh is now off limits to its residents. As of last week, it is open to Israeli settlers alone.

Hundreds of Israelis arrived at Ein Haniya, a natural spring on the outskirts of Jerusalem and the Palestinian village of al-Walajeh, last Tuesday, one of the early days of the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The site is part of a national park, technically open to all, which Israel declared on Walajeh’s agricultural land.

Less than a mile away from Ein Haniya, however, idled an Israeli Border Police jeep, stationed to ensure that no Palestinians could approach the spring. At the height of the olive harvest season, Palestinians were completely shut out from the site — including the residents of Walajeh, to whom 1,200 dunam (297 acres) of the barred area belongs.

Border Police officers have arrested several Palestinian farmers in their own olive orchards over the past few weeks. The decision to operate Ein Haniya as a leisure area for Israelis is directly linked to the expulsion of Walajeh’s residents from their own lands and from the village’s own spring.

The Bible’s strongest stories, most famously “Naboth’s Vineyard” and “The Poor Man’s Lamb,” call out against the abuse of power, including dispossession by the strong. Still, dispossession is the reality in this land, certainly since 1948. Jerusalem itself, on both sides of the Green Line, sprawls across sites of dispossession. At Ein Haniya on Tuesday, I saw this phenomenon in real time: how, in under an hour, Israeli visitors entered the site and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, yet another piece of Palestinian land turned Israeli.

The separation barrier started encroaching on Walajeh in 2010, when Israel placed a fence along a route designed to expropriate the village’s land. Instead of being built along the Green Line, based on the 1949 armistice agreements, the fence stretches close to Walajeh’s residential areas, cutting them off from 1,200 dunams of pastures and olive groves — private land that belongs to the villagers. Ein Haniya is at the heart of this sequestered area, and is also a central part of Walajeh’s heritage.

As the barrier was being built, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Nature and Parks Authority advanced a plan that would eventually see Walajeh’s agricultural land declared a national park called Nahal Refaim. The planning documentation contains no mention of the Palestinians who own the land and who cultivate the olive terraces — the same terraces whose beauty is cited as the reason for declaring the land they’re on as a national park. Instead, the plan announces that the site “will be used for the benefit of Jerusalem residents.”

The throngs of Israelis at Ein Haniya on Tuesday did indeed benefit from the spring, utterly indifferent to the fact that they were enjoying themselves on stolen land. They were blind, too, to the prominent separation fence that was about 70 meters (230 feet) above them and, behind it, the residents of Walajeh who had been excluded from the site.

I watched a father hugging his baby son. I was unable to reconcile the gap between this expression of a most innocent love, and the fact that they were taking part in land theft, denial of the villagers’ livelihood, and cultural destruction.

The national park was inaugurated at the start of 2018, a few months after the separation barrier between the spring and Walajeh was completed. Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin, along with the previous and current mayors of Jerusalem — Nir Barkat and Moshe Lion, respectively — attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony, along with several senior officials from the Nature and Parks Authority and the Israel Antiquities Authority. Yet the park remained closed off for almost two years following its inauguration.

The reason for the extended closure is that the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Walajeh leaves the spring and the grounds of the national park on its Palestinian side. Even though the separation barrier now blocks direct access from Walajeh homes to the olive terraces and the spring, Palestinian landowners can still get to the area by taking a detour around the barrier. The Israeli authorities are therefore unsatisfied with turning Walajeh’s land into “a natural site for the benefit of Israeli residents,” but rather want to completely deny Palestinian access to the area.

And it’s for this reason that the Jerusalem Municipality and the Nature and Parks Authority want to move the checkpoint from its current location toward the village. The army is not opposed to this change, although from its perspective, the checkpoint is doing its job as it is. Since the military is not willing to fund the checkpoint’s transfer, the move has been delayed nearly two years, Ein Haniya remains closed, and Walajeh’s residents are still able to farm their land.

Now, Israelis have been given access to the spring for three days during the Sukkot holiday. In the course of preventing any Palestinians from visiting Ein Haniya during that time, the Border Police have also stopped farmers from tending to their land. The Jerusalem Municipality anticipates that the Department of Transportation will shortly provide the millions of shekels needed to move the checkpoint, after which the residents of Walajeh will be completely barred from reaching their land.

A Palestinian boy watches a bulldozer clearing land for the Israeli separation wall surrounding the West Bank village of al-Walaja, September 5, 2011. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler)
A Palestinian boy watches a bulldozer clearing land for the Israeli separation barrier surrounding the West Bank village of al-Walaja, September 5, 2011. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/

In the meantime, Border Police has arrested Palestinian farmers in recent weeks while working in their own groves, because they were on the ‘wrong’ side of the barrier. They were threatened and told not to return to their lands. One farmer has been arrested three times in the last month. Israeli forces also destroyed expensive farming equipment he owns, and uprooted eight olive trees that had been planted over 10 years ago.

None of this was of any interest to the Israeli visitors who were at Ein Haniya on Tuesday. As more and more people crowded around the water under the trees, I could envisage the next steps: people overflowing from the packed-out spring, spreading over more and more of the surrounding land. Over the next few years, Walajeh’s land will likely become Israeli picnic spots. The Jerusalem Municipality has already hired planners to develop bike paths, picnic stations, and even a large campsite.

Walajeh’s residents did not protest the takeover of Ein Haniya. This is understandable: they have been living under occupation for 52 years and as refugees since 1948, when their village was destroyed. They have tried repeatedly to engage in non-violent opposition to the separation fence, the demolition of their homes, and to advocate for their basic rights — all while absorbing violence that the state dishes out without batting an eyelid, year after year.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.