For Sheerin al-Araj, the Israeli plan for the occupied West Bank village of al-Walaja is clear: make daily life impossible for its Palestinian residents in an effort to force them off their ancestral lands and empty the village entirely.
“They cannot afford [to displace] people by force, in front of cameras with little children and women crying and screaming. So they have to do it more strategically. And the way to do it is by making life impossible for us, and making life impossible is actually building a wall, building a settlement, [building] a gate where we will all be hostage to one 18-year-old [Israeli soldier who] will decide for us when to leave and when to come in,” al-Araj, a member of the Walaja Village Council, explained.
“We will eventually have nowhere to go because they are already taking [away] our natural growth areas. So if not [in] twenty years, it will be forty years and this place will be empty. It’s an ethnic cleansing process. It’s a clear-cut ethnic cleansing process,” she said.
The village straddles the green line — the internationally-recognized armistice line between Israel and the occupied West Bank — and located both within the southern boundaries of the Jerusalem municipality and in the occupied West Bank. Residents of al-Walaja have been fighting for years against home demolitions, the confiscation of land, the expansion of the nearby Jewish-only settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo and construction of a new Israeli settlement called Givat Yael.
Israel’s wall threatens to imprison village residents
The most pressing problem, however, has been the proposed route of Israel’s wall — commonly referred to as the apartheid wall — which would cut al-Walaja off from over 1,000 dunums of land (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters), a water well and an ancestral cemetery.
The wall would effectively turn the village of 2,500 residents into an open-air prison, as al-Walaja would only be connected to Beit Jala, Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank through a series of tunnels. Farmers would only be able to access their agricultural land with a permit from the Israeli authorities and by passing through a gate in the wall operated by the Israeli army.
Despite these severe restrictions, on 22 August the Israeli high court rejected the village residents’ appeal against the route of the wall, and gave the green light to the Israeli authorities to finish construction. The court cited security considerations as a major factor for why the route couldn’t be changed.
“We believe that the damage the security barrier will do to the petitioners is in fair proportion to the tremendous security benefits the barrier affords,” wrote Israeli high court President Dorit Beinisch in the ruling, according to a report in The Jerusalem Post. “We are persuaded that the protection afforded to Israeli residents by the security barrier is very great. It is one of the last obstacles standing in the way of terrorists on their way into the city [sic] to carry out their murderous plans” (“Top court turns down Palestinian case on barrier,” 24 August 2011).
However, Sheerin al-Araj, argues that security has nothing to do with it. “The wall is not for security. The wall is planned to seal the village from all sides and install a gate at the entrance,” she said.
“We are a few hundred meters away from the green line, so why are they sealing us in one jail when they can actually do this on the green line? Why do they build it so close to us when the green line is a few hundred meters down the valley? They can just build the safest, longest, more sustainable wall ever on that line.”
History of displacement, annexation
Before the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1947-48, in which more than 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled or fled from their homes, approximately 1,600 individuals lived in the village of al-Walaja. All of the residents were displaced, with most ending up in refugee camps in the Jerusalem and Bethlehem areas, or in Jordan and Lebanon.
According to information gathered by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), approximately a hundred residents remained in the immediate area following 1948. This area became known as the “new” al-Walaja — the al-Walaja of today — and sat two kilometers from the original village, on the other side of a steep valley.
Due to their forced displacement, the residents of al-Walaja lost about 70 percent of the lands they originally owned before 1948. Shortly after the 1967 War, the Israeli authorities annexed approximately half of al-Walaja’s remaining land to the Jerusalem municipality, while in the 1970s, more land was confiscated to build the illegal, Jewish-only settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo.
Today, the completion of Israel’s wall will be another chapter in the history of annexation and displacement in al-Walaja. Construction continues apace despite the fact that in July 2004, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion that the wall in the West Bank is against international law and should be dismantled.
“Israel … is under an obligation to cease forthwith the works of construction of the wall being built in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, to dismantle forthwith the structure therein situated, and to repeal or render ineffective forthwith all legislative and regulatory acts relating thereto,” the court found.
Israel’s wall “part of the colonial system”
Jamal Juma’ is the coordinator of the Stop the Wall campaign, which aims to stop construction of the wall, dismantle the current structure, return all lands confiscated by the wall and compensate individuals for all losses incurred by its construction.
“[The wall is] controlling the Palestinian people, oppressing the Palestinian people and destroying the possibility for them [to build] a better future. It’s facilitating the occupation, and it’s a part of the colonial system,” Juma’ told The Electronic Intifada.
In the specific case of al-Walaja, Juma’ explained that despite assurances from the Israeli authorities that farmers would be able to access their lands through a gate in the wall, experience proves that this is highly unlikely.
“It is a dangerous lie because they want to show the world that they have a sense of humanity when they talk about walls and [that] they care about the human beings. That’s not true. Experience proves, from Qalqilya to Tulkarem to Jenin, all the gates along the wall, the vast majority of them [have been] closed in front of the people,” Juma’ said.
“The ones that are still there, the movement through them [is] very restricted and [the Israelis] aren’t giving permissions like they should. They use it as a tool, step by step and day after day, to make the people give up on reaching their lands. It’s a big joke.”
He added that al-Walaja represents the greater tragedy of the Palestinian people that began with their expulsion from their homeland in 1948.
“Al-Walaja represents the catastrophe, the tragedy of the Palestinian people that started in 1948,” Juma’ said. “Their existence is threatened. Palestinians feel that they are chased and it’s clear that the colonial project that the Israeli-Zionists started in 1948 is still [continuing]. It’s following the Palestinians.”
In recent weeks, Palestinian, Israeli and international activists have demonstrated against the wall and annexation of al-Walaja lands, and the uprooting of olive trees for its construction, on an almost weekly basis. The Israeli military has responded with the use force, shooting tear gas, sound grenades and even live ammunition at demonstrators, and arresting dozens.
According to Sheerin al-Araj, despite this onslaught of Israeli violence and the disappointment of the Israeli high court’s ruling, the residents of al-Walaja will continue to fight against their forced displacement and for their basic rights.
“They do not want us here and everything they do contributes to this goal that we [will] all somehow vanish or disappear, which is not going to happen. They’re just dreaming. They’re digging in their own grave by [doing] this. This means that they only generate more hatred and are pushing the whole region into a bloodshed war instead of a peaceful solution that can be good for both sides,” she said.
“We will continue everything that we are doing and we’re working on different aspects of popular resistance. I don’t think that we will stop even after they close the wall. This is a continuing struggle.”
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at http://jkdamours.com.