Israel is liable to demolish 38 homes in the West Bank village of Walaja after the Jerusalem District Planning Board rejected a master plan drafted by the village's residents. The committee ruled that conserving nature and traditional local farming in the area take precedence over developing Walaja, even though the same board approved in the past a significantly larger building plan for Jewish neighborhoods in the same area.
The Jerusalem District Planning Board said that the Walaja residents' plan lacked basic documents required for approval, and that a plan that would "protect open spaces" and "examine the possibility of preserving some of the existing historic buildings" in Walaja would be possible.
The northern half of Walaja is located within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, but residents do not receive services from the municipality or from the state of Israel. Instead, they rely on the Palestinian Authority for services ranging from education to trash collection. The village has not had a master plan since the 1967 de facto annexation of East Jerusalem, preventing residents from being able to build new homes legally. Residents built dozens of homes out of necessity over the past 54 years without permits.
In recent years, the so-called Kaminitz law has caused an increase in inspection and prosecution of building violations. In four years, 20 houses in Walaja were destroyed. Another 38 homes have received orders for immediate demolition, and dozens of others built since 1967 are also in danger of being razed.
Fifteen years ago, residents attempted to rectify the situation by preparing a master plan for the village with the help of the late architect Claude Rosenkowitz and the planning NGO Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights. The plan was supposed to enable residents to receive permits for homes that were already built, and provide permits for future construction to other residents.
For years, the district board refused to discuss the plan, and was forced to do so only after residents petitioned the Supreme Court. The board's hearing, held last July, included former Minister Benny Begin, who supported the plan. The Civil Administration and the Nature and Parks Authority also supported it.
But the board recently published not only its decision to reject the plan in its totality, but also to adopt a host of extremely limiting restrictions for approving any future plans. Among other decisions, the board ruled that a large area in the village be set aside for an urban park, and that residents would only be able to receive a construction permit for structures built before 1967 or attached to them.
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Residents and the activists who worked on the plan with them were stunned by the decision. The state had already taken 1,000 dunams from Walaja residents to build the national park in Nahal Refaim. But even as it rejected the relatively moderate building plan in Walaja, the planning board and the Civil Administration are advancing a massive construction plan designated for Jews on all the surrounding hills. The Gilo settlement has expanded to Walaja's east, and the enormous Reches Lavan neighborhood is expected to be built to its north, despite the massive environmental damage it is likely to cause.
In addition, the Civil Administration is advancing the expansion of the nearby Har Gilo settlement on additional green space, compounding the environmental damage caused by the separation barrier, which surrounds Walaja on three sides. "I don't understand. When they build Har Gilo it doesn't affect nature, but only when we build it affects nature?" asked attorney Ibrahim al-Araj, a Walaja resident. "It's blatant racism."
“The district board’s decision is discriminatory and dripping with malice,” said attorney Jiat Nasser, who is representing the villagers. “It feels like the hearings were fixed, as if they want the residents to leave… We didn’t expect inhumanity would reach such proportions.”
Aviv Tatarsky, of the NGO Ir Amim, said that the committee's "reliance on values of nature and traditional farming as an excuse to impose draconian limitations on planning in the village is baseless.”
The Jerusalem District Planning Board said in response that, like all other plans debated by the committee, the one presented by Walaja residents "was reviewed according to planning parameters." It added that the plan does not line up with the Jerusalem 2000 master plan, "in which the area included in the plan is defined as open space."
Moreover, it does not "offer a proper plan suitable for the accepted criteria.” For example, it said, the plan is lacking basic, required documents, such as a traffic appendix and plans for water and sewage.
The board added, “Still, considering the special circumstances of the residents of Walaja, the board noted in its decision that it would be possible to examine advancing a plan in the area, based first and foremost on protecting open spaces and while examining the possibility of preserving some of the existing historic buildings within the village."