The Jerusalem Planning and Building Committee has approved the establishment of a new national park in southern Jerusalem, part of which will include the lands of the village of Walaja. The boundary of the park will run along the security fence, which separates the villagers of Walaja from their farmland. However, the approval of the park also stops the establishment of a large settlement planned for the area.
The Refaim Valley Park will cover more than 5,700 dunams, or 1,425 acres, at the southern exit of Jerusalem and will be part of the large urban park to surround Jerusalem on three sides. The Green Line runs through the base of the Refaim Valley, through which the park runs.
An estimated 1,200 dunams of the park are terraced farmlands belonging to the villagers of Walaja. In fact, preserving the historically significant of the terraces is one of the reasons cited for creating the park. But villagers say the main threat to the ancient culture of terrace agriculture comes from the security fence under construction.
In consideration of residents’ objections, the committee stipulated that one of the park’s aims is “preserving the organic cultural landscape” and the agricultural terraces. The plan includes elements to protect the terraces from damage by visitors.
But once the fence is completed Walaja’s farmers will only be able to access their fields by means of gates in the security fence. The national park plan prohibits habitation of the park; as a result, two families now living there, in caves and tin shacks, will be forced to leave.
According to Aviv Tatarsky of Ir Amim, a nonprofit association that supports the “equitable” sharing of Jerusalem, the route of the security fence allows “the taking of lands from the inhabitants of Walaja and transferring them to Israelis, who will come to visit.”
In addition, he says, “Changing the character of the area from Palestinian farmland to an Israeli recreational site fits in with the plan to create contiguity between the city and the settlements surrounding it.”
Walaja’s residents are apprehensive about the decision to create a national park. The security fence that now surrounds the village has just one opening in the direction of Beit Jala, northwest of Bethlehem.
“The government wants to fence us in, first the fence and now the park and in the end they’ll build a settlement there,” Ahmad Sallah Barghout of Walaja says. Forty dunams of his land, and his parents’ graves, are within the boundaries of the new national park.
The original proposal submitted for the park included a birding center, dining facilities, sports facilities and a shooting range. The committee did not approve the shooting range.