`As long as we're caged, why not make us part of the zoo?'

Danny Rubinstein
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Danny Rubinstein

The residents of the village of Al-Walajah want to sound out the Israeli government on the possibility of being granted prisoners rights, says Adnan al-Atrache, the deputy head of the village council and the chairman of Al-Walajah's Committee to Prevent House Demolitions. According to the plan of the separation fence now under construction, the village is set to be completely surrounded and will effectively become a prison compound. One of al-Atrache's neighbors doesn't think it's very funny, but al-Atrache retorts: "In prison you get food, cigarettes, electricity and water, and all for free, in addition to permission to walk in the yard - and that's exactly what we're asking for."

Al-Atrache's wife points to the big park across the railway tracks in which lies Jerusalem's large Biblical Zoo. "As long as we're in a cage," she says, "maybe you'll annex us to the zoo?"

A visit to Al-Walajah, located in southern Jerusalem and within the city's municipal boundaries, raises only one hope - that the project of building the separation fence along its planned winding route is so fantastic and complicated that there is hardly any chance of implementing it. It's doubtful, however, whether the residents of the village, like those of dozens of other communities along the route of the fence, can make do with that hope.

The residents of Al-Walajah say that according to the maps they have seen and the information they have received, no one will be able to enter or leave the village without a special permit. "Relatives and friends who will want to visit me will need special papers. If they want to stay over, they will have to obtain other permits," al-Atrache says.

Because the village has only one elementary school and no sources of employment, the residents leave its environs every day for work, studies and errands. When in place, the fence will force them to wait at checkpoints, go through security checks and suffer daily hazing in order to carry out these routine activities.

South and north of the tracks

Al-Walajah was once located alongside the rail line from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, between Beit Safafa, which has become a southern suburb of Jerusalem, and Batir (the ancient Betar), which lies south of the tracks. It was a relatively large village. In his book, "Our Land of Palestine," (a kind of encyclopedia on all the communities in the country that was published in Beirut) Mustafa Dabar, a Jaffa-born historian, notes that in 1945, Al-Walajah was a village in the subdistrict of Jerusalem. The village covered an area of some 41 dunams (10 acres) and comprised 292 houses. Its public areas stretched 166 dunams and included roads, springs, a cemetery and a school.

The cease-fire agreement signed by Israel and Jordan after Israel's War of Independence stipulated that the boundary line in southern Jerusalem would run along the railway line. The line passed between the houses in the village of Beit Safafa, and the village, therefore, had to be divided. The northern side was placed under Israeli rule; the southern side remained in Jordan.

Today, too, 55 years after the agreement was signed and almost 37 years after the removal of the fence that ran along the tracks and split Beit Safafa, there is a discernible difference between the two parts of the village. The residents of the northern section are Israeli citizens, whereas those in the southern part are not (they hold Israeli ID cards, but are not eligible to vote in elections to the Knesset or to be issued an Israeli passport).

The neighboring village, Batir, was and remains wholly to the south of the railway line. It was completely under Jordanian rule and is now part of the West Bank.

In contrast, Al-Walajah lay to the north of the tracks and was, therefore, supposed to be part of Israeli territory. However, in 1949, with the encouragement of the governments of both Israel and Jordan, the residents of Al-Walajah left their homes and moved to the southern side of the tracks - into Jordanian territory. They lost the homes and lands that had been theirs inside Israel; but their loss was less painful than that endured by the residents of other, nearby villages - Jora, Al-Malha, Ein Karem, Sataf, Alar and Deir al-Hawa. They lost everything they had. The case of Al-Walajah was different: A large part of the villagers' lands lay in the area that was given to Jordan, so they were able to rebuild their community in the West Bank, a few hundred meters from the site of their destroyed community.

In the 1950s, the residents of Al-Walajah built a few dozen houses on the slopes that descend from Beit Jalla toward the railway line. The physical structure of the new village took on a different form from that of the traditional village, in which the buildings are concentrated around an ancient core. Instead, the village's buildings are located far from one another, and the community covers a large area. The "new" Al-Walajah has four neighborhoods - Ein Jewiza, where an ancient spring is located, Al-Dahar, Arad al-Samaq, where the land is reddish as the name suggests, and Saraj (meaning "saddle," as the neighborhood lies below two rocky hills that resemble a saddle).

Moshav Aminadav, a farming community located near Hadassah Hospital in Ein Karem, lies on the lands of Al-Walajah that remained in Israel. Visitors to the Kennedy Memorial and the nearby fields and woods can see the remnants of the houses of the original Al-Walajah, which was next to the railway line, on the slopes of the hill.

However, not all the residents of Al-Walajah built their homes in the new village. Times were hard in the West Bank in the 1950s, and most of the village's residents crossed the Jordan River and settled on its east side. Others found temporary dwellings in the nearby refugee camps (all the residents of Al-Walajah were recognized as refugees and as such entitled to the services of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency).

Israeli territory, Palestinian rule

After the 1967 Six-Day War, the boundaries of the expanded East Jerusalem, which was annexed to Israel, brought nearly the entire area of the neighborhoods of the new Al-Walajah into Israel. Dozens and perhaps hundreds of the villagers were not included in the census that the Israeli government conducted in the eastern part of the city. They received ID cards of West Bank residents, not Israeli ID cards.

In the period of relative prosperity in the 1970s and 1980s, the residents of the neighborhoods in the new village enjoyed a large-scale building momentum, as did all the Palestinian areas. Families that had moved from the village to the Deheisheh refugee camp outside Bethlehem or to Shuafat, in northern Jerusalem, returned to Al-Walajah and built new homes.

The new Al-Walajah now has a population of about 2,000 residents, and their situation is one of the most bizarre that has been created by the Israeli-Palestinian entanglement. They live in Jerusalem - that is, in Israel - but they get all their services from the Palestinian Authority. In other words, in theory they are in Israeli territory; but in practice, they are under Palestinian rule.

Adnan al-Atrache, 45, was born in the Deheisheh refugee camp. In 1987, he built a home in the Ein Jewiza neighborhood of Al-Walajah. The house was demolished because he didn't have a building permit from the Jerusalem Municipality; but it was rebuilt in 1990. Al-Atrache worked for many years as a foreman in an Israeli construction company. He was an activist in the first intifada and served several terms in prison under administrative detention. The lovely living room of his house is adorned with a photograph of himself with Yasser Arafat and Hani al-Hassan. Today, he is active in the Fatah movement in Bethlehem and is barred from entering Israel.

In recent years, the Jerusalem Municipality has demolished more than 20 houses in the village, says Al-Atrache, who is known as Abu Hussein. "We don't pay taxes to the Jerusalem Municipality and we don't get any services from them - except for the demolition services of the Israeli bulldozers," he says.

Village residents have received another 50 demolition orders, some of which are now pending court decisions.

A spectacular view of southern Jerusalem is visible from almost every location in Al-Walajah - the Katamonim section, the Malha mall and Teddy Stadium; the neighborhoods of Masua, New Malha and Gilo. Across the railway line, which is now being repaired, lies the ridge on which are situated Aminadav, Moshav Ora and the Kennedy Memorial.

In fact, the village is surrounded on all sides by the Jewish neighborhoods of southern Jerusalem, the Har Gilo field school (Ras Beit Jalla), and the Jewish settlement atop the hill. To the southwest, lies the new ultra-Orthodox community of Betar Illit. In view of these geographic conditions, the planners of the route of the separation fence that is to be erected in the south of Jerusalem didn't have many options available. The fence would have to surround the neighborhoods of Al-Walajah and place them under full curfew. That, in fact, is what the Defense Ministry's plans for the fence at Al-Walajah look like.

Even today, without a fence, getting out of the village is no easy task. The only road leading to Al-Walajah comes from the direction of Ras Bait Jalla. In the middle of last week, the permanent checkpoint at the entrance to the village was manned by about 10 soldiers and Border Policemen. Standing at the barrier, as is the case at every checkpoint in the West Bank, was a group of Arab workers who had been caught trying to enter Israel to work. Another way out of Al-Walajah is via a side road, which crosses the lands of the Cremisan monastery. Many people use this route because there is no permanent checkpoint there. There are dozens of dirt trails and paths in the hills around the village, and these are used by many from the West Bank to enter Jerusalem without a permit.

Al-Walajah is not the only village that is going to be entirely fenced in. Three nearby communities - Husan, Batir and Nahalin - are closed together behind the fence in a similar format. There are other towns and villages in the same situation in northern and eastern Jerusalem, and in Samaria. The town of Qalqilyah is the best-known example. Speaking at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies last Wednesday, the Israel Defense Forces officer in charge of building the fence, Colonel Danny Tirza, explained that he and his people were making every effort to ensure that the residents of these villages would be able to come and go via special gates - with permits, of course.

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