Encircled by the separation barrier, threatened with demolition orders, and deemed illegal aliens in their own homes, the residents of the Palestinian village of Walajeh are fighting for their lives.
From the village of Walajeh, one can see much of Jerusalem. The round roof of Teddy Stadium, where the city’s soccer teams play. The towers of the Holyland luxury apartment complex, looming over the surrounding, low-slung buildings. The square, sandstone houses of the city’s southern neighborhoods. And from much of Jerusalem, one can see Walajeh. The deep green hills where the separation barrier — glinting razor wire and dull, grey concrete — slices through ancient farming terraces.
The problem, explains Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher at the Jerusalem-based human rights group Ir Amim, is that few Jewish Israelis care to look. Tatarsky, also part of Engaged Dharma, a group that combines Buddhist meditation with social action, has been active in solidarity work in the village since 2010, when Israel began to build the separation barrier there. He has brought groups of Israelis to work with Palestinians in the village, planting trees and tilling land, since 2012.
Walajeh was the site of weekly protests against the construction of the separation wall in 2010 and 2011. The residents would march to the village entrance, next to the wall surrounding the adjacent Jewish settlement of Har Gilo, where they would face off with the Israeli army. The soldiers would violently disperse the demonstrators, firing tear gas, stun grenades, and, in some instances, live ammunition. Walajeh residents, sometimes joined by Israeli and international activists, would sit down in front of the bulldozers that destroyed their fields and olive groves.
Unlike other renowned Palestinian villages like Bil’in or Budrus, Walajeh was unable to sustain the regular demonstrations. Today, the village is surrounded by the separation barrier on three sides, severing it from much of its agricultural land.
Walajeh returned to the headlines in early March when Israel announced the re-opening of the nearby Ein Hanya spring, designated a national park by the Israeli government. Israel had just completed a 14-million-shekel renovation of the area around the spring, which includes an archeological site. As part of the park’s reopening, Israeli authorities plan to move the checkpoint that separates Walajeh from Jerusalem. The checkpoint’s new location will block the residents of Walajeh, as well as of the nearby village of Battir, from accessing the spring. The renovated Ein Hanya site will be open to Israelis only.
“We’re not surprised,” says Aziz, who lives in Walajeh, of the government’s decision to move the checkpoint. Though the residents of Walajeh have long used the spring, Aziz explains, it has been a tense, even dangerous, place for Palestinians since at least 2006; Israeli Border Police officers would occasionally arrest Palestinian teenagers there. “You go to have fun and you find yourself facing a soldier with a gun. What kind of life is this?”
Aziz remembers how when the village temporarily lost running water in 2006, people strapped jerry cans to their donkeys and rode to the spring to fetch water. If the village loses running water again, its residents will have to find an alternative source.
Aziz has been active in his village’s struggle for a number of years. He retells the history of Walajeh over coffee in his sunlit living room, the early-spring glow of the Rephaim Valley visible through an open window. Israel’s expropriation of Ein Hanya, maintained for years by Walajeh’s farmers, and the construction of the new checkpoint are simply the latest abuses in Israel’s decades-long effort to separate the village’s residents from their land.
Walajeh is a village of refugees. The present-day residents fled the village’s original location after the 1948 war, when the village fell under Israeli control. The Israeli moshav of Aminadav, currently stands on the ruins of old Walajeh, visible across the valley from “new” Walajeh.
After the 1967 War, Israel annexed part of Walajeh to the Jerusalem municipality. The other part of the village is located in what today is Area C of the West Bank.
Though Israel annexed the land, it did not annex the people. The majority of the Walajeh’s residents do not have the blue Israeli ID cards that Palestinian residents of other East Jerusalem neighborhoods have. Without those blue IDs or special permits issued by the army, Walajeh’s residents cannot legally enter Jerusalem — even though part of the village is officially within the city’s borders. In 2004, Aziz tells me, Israeli security forces carried out mass arrests in the village, charging people with being illegal residents on their own land.
On the Jerusalem side of the village, some 50 percent of the homes have demolition orders against them, Tatarsky says. Like in other Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, it is almost impossible for Walajeh residents to get building permits; Israeli planning authorities have not approved a formal plan for the village. The residents drafted their own plan, with the help of two Israeli architects, which Israeli authorities rejected in 2009. Israel continues to execute the demolition orders. Demonstrations in the village, during which residents, again, blocked Israeli bulldozers, temporarily prevented the demolition of a house in August.
But the pace of the demolition orders is accelerating. “We used to get time to breathe,” Aziz remarks. “Now the orders are immediate and you can’t continue to work on the property. And if you do, you get fined.”
“We’re not among those who win,” Aziz adds. “We always lose.”
The combination of the wall, the demolitions, and the issue of the Israeli IDs has crushed the village’s morale. Before the construction of the wall, Walajeh’s residents would go to work in Jerusalem. Now, Marwan, a 24-year-old construction worker tells me, there is no work, no money, and no hope. “We don’t have the power to do anything.”
Without a work permit or a blue ID card, Marwan says he crosses illegally through a part of the separation wall that remains unfinished, to work in Aminadav, the moshav built on old Walajeh’s ruins. “Just this fence,” he says, “is like a knife in the heart.” Marwan’s family has land on the other side of the wall.
Marwan wants to get married and start a family. Though still single, he is building a house for his future family next to his parents’ home. To find a wife, he says, you need to have money, so he wants to show he’s serious. The new house, half-built with an elegant arch above the doorway of what will be the living room, is, like the other homes in the village, illegal under Israeli law. “If they destroy my house,” Marwan says, “I will have lost two lives.”
Around the corner from Marwan, on the Jerusalem side of the village, lives Abu Najib. The separation barrier — in the form of a layered, barbed-wire fence — cuts directly through his property. Several months ago, welders repairing the fence accidentally set fire to Abu Najib’s olive grove, burning it to the ground before the beginning of the olive harvest season. The Engaged Dharma group was there to help Abu Najib plant new trees where the old once stood.
A man in his 70s with pale blue eyes, Abu Najib, along with his family, recently won temporary legal residency in Israel. A Jerusalem court issued an injunction against the Interior Ministry’s order to deport the family on the grounds that they were illegal aliens living inside Israel.
Like Abu Najib, Aziz and some of his family have also received temporary residency. The residents of Walajeh with temporary residency will have to renew their status every year.
When I meet Aziz, he has just picked up his new papers after a whirlwind trip through Israeli bureaucracy. He is relieved to have the documents, exhausted from the ordeal, and skeptical, still, about what the new status will change. “We still don’t know what the meaning of these new ID cards will be,” he says.
The decision to apply for Israeli residency was not an easy one. When the idea of applying for residency first arose around 12 years ago, Tatarsky says, the village was faced with a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, formal residency would protect them from deportation—from being uprooted, again, from their land. On the other, applying for Israeli residency meant recognizing the legitimacy of the Israeli authorities. More than a few families in village refused to apply for residency, though they lived in the part of the village annexed by Israel.
Walajeh is a microcosm of the occupation, a village where Palestinians are considered illegal aliens, foreigners, on land where their families lived for centuries; where Israel is trying to remove Palestinians from their land through home demolitions, deportations, and the separation barrier; where even the right to a home comes with concessions. Israel, through decades of violent and discriminatory policies, has made it clear: it wants the Palestinians of Walajeh gone.
Standing in the gravel of his new house’s unfinished floor, Marwan asks Tatarsky, in light of everything that is happening — the demolitions, the three new checkpoints set up in the village over the past week, the growing sense of hopelessness — if he thinks things are going to be okay.
“No,” Tatarsky says, “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” Marwan replies.
The names of Palestinians who appear in this article have been changed to protect their identities.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the village is surrounded on all sides by the separation barrier, forcing Palestinian farmers to reach their land through gates under Israeli military control. That was Israel’s original plan for the wall. However, following an appeal to the High Court of Justice, the army announced that wall would be built to surround the village on only three sides. The relocated checkpoint, not a part of the wall, still blocks Walajeh’s residents from reaching their land.