The house of Munthir Mahmoud Hamad stood alone. Almost perfectly square in shape and made up of gray cement stone - it stood on a tiny hilltop among rubble - what was likely to have been a previously destroyed home. A makeshift water tank sat on the roof and wires led from the rooftop to a generator nearby. From his house you could see the Jewish settlement of Gilo. All settlements in Israel and the Occupied Territories are easy to point out - houses are obtrusively white in color, perfectly aligned next to one another, and built on a hilltop - like a perfect suburbia and another world. Hamad’s house was built solely for survival and nothing else. It had a temporary feel, as though was awaiting its next demolition. Hamad’s son would play soccer outside, kicking a ball around the only greenery nearby - one pomegranate tree that stands alone, a few meters from the side of the house, as though born from the massive pile of rubble.
On Dec 13th 2006, Hamad’s house was demolished.
The residents of Al-Wallaja, a village just south of Bethlehem and west of Jerusalem, are living in a precarious situation. In 1967, following the ‘67 War, Israel annexed the West Bank and Gaza Strip, beginning the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian Territories. At the same time, Israel also annexed East Jerusalem, expanding the city’s boundaries deep into the West Bank, defining the entire area as Greater Jerusalem, and therefore part of the state of Israel. The village of Al-Wallaja was split into two - some of the land was confiscated as part of Greater Jerusalem, placing the village under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem municipal authority. The rest of Al-Wallaja remained as part of the West Bank - under the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli military occupation. Five hundred Palestinians currently live in what is now Jerusalem-Al-Wallaja (renamed Ein-Jweisa), while 1200 live in West Bank-Al-Wallaja, (renamed New Wallaja). Those 500 residents living in Ein-Jweisa, within Greater Jerusalem, were not given Jerusalem ID cards, but continue to hold orange West Bank ID cards. Nor were these residents made aware of their status until 1987 when the first order for a house demolition was issued in their village, under the pretext that the land was “unrecognized” by the Jerusalem Municipality. The first house in Ein-Jweisa was demolished that year, beginning a trend of demolitions and expulsions that continues to this day.
Hamad is 50 years old and has been living in Ein-Jweisa his whole life. His first house was demolished about one year ago on orders by the Israeli government, who claimed that it was built without an Israeli permit and therefore, was deemed ‘illegal’. After his house was demolished, Hamad had to live in a tent for a few weeks until the people of Al-Wallaja came together and gathered enough money to rebuild his family a new home. Their house was completed, but only 5 months later was reduced to rubble yet again. The family is currently living in rented accommodation and is unsure whether they will attempt to rebuild their home again. Hamad does not believe that Israeli law should be applicable in his case since he holds a West Bank Palestinian ID Card, and therefore, should be governed by the Palestinian Authority.
He states: “Israel uses their laws on the Palestinians. The West Bank is an Arab area so why are they using Israeli laws in Palestinian cities and towns? How are we supposed to gain our own authority when Israel is dominating the West Bank? I cannot say that my house was illegally built. If I were to say this, I would be referring to Israeli lawà”
Hamad refuses to accept Ein-Jweisa as part of Israel. Not only were they not granted Israeli citizenship, he explains, they haven’t received any services from either the Military Government or the Jerusalem Municipality since the annexation in 1967. He states, “When I rebuilt the house I was 100% sure they were going to demolish it again. But I believe that the biggest Palestinian problem is the occupation. I believe one day the Israelis are going to put me in jail, because I’m not respecting Israeli law. I’m not trying to be brave by doing what I do; I just want to live a normal life.”
According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), house demolitions are issued in Ein-Jweisa by both the Israeli Ministry of Interior and the Jerusalem Municipality on the basis that the residents are “illegally present.” In other words, because the residents are living in Jerusalem without holding Jerusalem ID. ICAHD states that there are about 80 houses that presently stand in this area, 24 of which have demolition orders.
Residents of Ein-Jweisa are specifically being targeted by Israel because of the key location of their village. Ein-jweisa is very close to the city of Jerusalem, - and the locals have heard that Israel is planning on building a new settlement in the area. According to Ha’aretz, the new settlement will connect Efrat (the Etzion Bloc Town) to Jerusalem, to connect Gilo to the Etzion Bloc. The newspaper also states that Israel is planning on building a new settlement called Givat Yael, which will be directly on the land of Ein-Jweisa.
The people of Al Wallaja have also been fighting a case against a military order they received six months ago, stating that the separation wall being constructed in the West Bank will confiscate 2000 dumans (500 acres) of land to Israel. With the order, they were given a map of the route. The wall will pass through Al Wallaja, cutting the village into two - physically placing Ein-Jweisa on the Israeli side, while New Wallaja will be on the Palestinian side. According to a United Nations report published in April 2006, when the barrier is complete, New Wallaja will be situated in between the settlement of Gush Etzion on south side, Ein-Jweisa and the rest of Greater Jerusalem on the north side, Bethlehem on the west, and Israel on the east side. The only thing that will connect New Wallaja to the outside world will be an underpass road to the West Bank. In order words, the wall will entirely encircle New Wallaja, turning it into what Atta Al-Araj, a Member of the Local Committee Against House Demolitions, calls “a semi ghetto.” The report also states that the most recent route of the wall indicates that, when built, will isolate the village from its farmland, making it inaccessible to residents. Although Israel has not started to build the wall in Al Wallaja, signs of its construction are already present. “The military killed two sheep a few months ago because they were too close to the path of the wall,” Atta states. According to a report issued by the Al-Wallaja Popular Committee Against House Demolitions, “The case of Al-Wallaja is a problem because Israel does not want to take all of Al-Wallaja into Israel and give its residents Jerusalem IDs; however, they do not want to give the entire village, including Ein-Jweisa to Palestinian control.”
Omar Issa Mahmoud Hadjaj is a 40-year-old resident of Ein-Jweisa. Hadjaj sits on the balcony of his house, which overlooks his family’s land, the holy city of Jerusalem and Gilo - a settlement built on 3700 dunums (914 acres) of land in the West Bank, housing approximately 31 000 settlers. Hadjaj’s case is the most unique because of the strategic location of his home. It is the closest house in Ein-Jweisa to Jerusalem and therefore its presence acts as an artificial border between Jerusalem and the West Bank, essentially between Ein-Jweisa and New Wallaja. In 1999, after Hadjaj extended his house an additional 30 square metres, he received a house demolition order from the Jerusalem Municipal court. The court stated that his house was illegal because he does not have a permit to build on his home. According to ICAHD, it is impossible for Palestinian citizens living in Ein-Jweisa to get a permit to extend or build new property because of their status as West Bank ID holders living in Israel. The Committee believes that Hadjaj’s house has not been demolished yet because of Israel’s limited budget. Over 1000 homes in the West Bank have demolition orders, but the state’s budget of $800,000US only allows them to demolish about 120 to 150 houses per year. Therefore, the law states that a house can be demolished within 24 hours to 24 years from the time of the order.
Hadjaj believes that Israeli authorities have gone out of their way to pressure him to leave his house since then. “There have been attempts from the soldiers and the court to make me feel uncomfortable in my house, by putting checkpoints very close to my house, by harassing me and by using intimidation tactics.” In 2005, the Jerusalem municipal court claimed that his house was in the way of the proposed path of the security wall. Therefore, after the barrier is constructed, Hadjaj’s house will be completely encircled by a fence, acting as part of the separation wall.
Hadjaj states, “There is going to be a fence and there are going to be soldiers guarding the house. How am I going to live with my family while soldiers are surrounding us all the time? There is going to be a new highway from Hosh Crimsan to the Canyon. My family and I will be living in a cage and cars will be passing by and people can point and look at us as though we are animals. They are going to make a mockery of me. I don’t think that my house is as important as what is happening Lebanon. It’s not more important than what is happening in Gaza and Jenin, but every person here has there own situation to deal with.”
Hadjaj was born a refugee in Ein-Jweisa, five minutes away from his family’s land - a land that was razed to the ground and that he cannot return to. Before the creation of New Wallaja and Ein-Jweisa, existed the village of Old Wallaja. The village housed 2000 residents in the late 1940s. Old Wallaja sat on the hilltops of Jerusalem - on two mountains and a valley. It was considered a large village at the time, when Palestine only inhabited about 1 million people.
Old Wallaja was one of the 430 Palestinian villages completely razed to the ground by Zionist militias during the 1947-48 war - in what Palestinians call in Arabic Al-Nakba (the catastrophe). Most residents were forced to flee the town and 65% of the land (the northern section of Old Wallaja) was confiscated by the state of Israel. Hadjaj is from one of the families who did not flee the area in 1947-48. Along with a few hundred other Palestinians, Hadjaj’s family settled on the remaining 35% of Old Wallaja - the southern mountain - now divided into New Wallaja and Ein-Jweisa. The annexed 65% of land now remains as part of Israel and is inaccessible to Palestinians. Those who live in New Wallaja or Ein-Jweisa can see the rubble of the few partially destroyed houses that remain on the land of Old Wallaja. Others who left are still living in refugee camps in Bethlehem or in neighboring Jordan. Fifty-eight years have passed, and those living in Al Wallaja remain - unable to access their original lands, but also, fighting to prevent another expulsion and one more generation of refugees.
Atta Al-Araj is well known in the West Bank, specifically for his work with the Local Committee Against House Demolitions. He walks along the long winding roads of Ein-Jweisa - small box shaped houses, children playing in the streets, neighbors drinking coffee on their verandas - a stagnant feel surrounds the village. Al-Araj has been going back and forth to the Israeli courts helping other residents with their cases. He knows the story of every resident in Al Wallaja.
“The people of Al-Wallaja have become the new generation of refugees,” says Al-Araj. Since 1987, Israel has demolished 27 houses in Atta’s hometown. “It is 2006, and the pressure has increased on us once again,” he states. Just this year, Israel destroyed 7 houses in Ein-Jweisa, leaving over 50 Palestinians homeless and without the right to rebuild on a land that they have been living on for over one hundred years.
Al-Araj believes that the demolition of infrastructure, which is illegal under the 1949 Geneva Convention, is part of Israel’s greater plan of ethnic cleansing the Palestinian population. “This is nothing new. It is not only Al Wallaja. All the villages around here are suffering from the same problems,” he states. House demolitions, mass arrests and the building of the separation wall are forcing citizens with no other option but to leave their homes and relocate. Along with house demolitions, Israeli authorities have also increased pressure on the citizens by building a roadblock on the main road, making travel to surrounding areas, such as Bethlehem and Beit Jala difficult. The military has also proceeded with a campaign of arrests and nighttime invasions targeting local residents.
Amin Mohaddine Al-Atrash was born in Ein-Jweisa in the 1970s. His family was transferred from Old Wallaja to New Wallaja in 1948 and he has lived in his family home since his birth. Since 1997, Al-Atrash has been in and out of the Israeli courts, fighting a house demolition order issued by the Jerusalem municipal court. The order states that his house was illegally built.
Al-Atrash believes that Israel has been using the law against villagers, in an attempt to evict Palestinians from Ein-Jweisa. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinians must adhere to Israeli military law, while Israeli settlers living illegally in the Occupied Territories are governed in accordance to civilian law. “Instead of using guns, this time, they are using Israeli law. Israel is forcing us to respect laws that are established by Israel. They interpret the law for us and they apply it on us. We can’t do anything to defend ourselves,” He considers the current situation in Ein-Jweisa as part of Israel’s new method, of what he calls, modern transfer.
Al-Atrash alludes to the Nakba in 1948 - the transfer of three-quarters of the Palestinian population (750 000 people) - when he makes this statement. He believes that the main goal of the state of Israel towards Ein-Jweisa and other villages of Greater Jerusalem is to clear the land of Palestinians, in order to build more settlements and confiscate more land. He states, “You can say, in one sense, that this is another Nakba. Actually, more accurately, you can say that the Nakba, which symbolizes to us Palestinians - displacement, uprootedness, dispossession, thievery and loss - has never ended.”
Tania Tabar is a student and freelance journalist currently living in Montreal. A Palestinian/Lebanese-Canadian, born in exile, she spent the summer working as a correspondent for the International Middle East Media Center (IMEMC) in the Occupied West Bank. She may be reached at email@example.com.