'Living in a Prison, Though I Have the Key': All Alone on the Wrong Side of Israel's Separation Barrier

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Omar Hajajleh stands next to the security barrier that separates his home from the village of Al-Walaja, December 11, 2017.
Omar Hajajleh stands next to the security barrier that separates his home from the village of Al-Walaja, December 11, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Two weeks ago, a Border Police jeep arrived at the Hajajleh family home in the village of Al-Walaja, south of Jerusalem. The soldiers gave the family patriarch, Omar Hajajleh, a small remote control, like the kind used to unlock cars. Shortly afterward, the large electric gate separating the house from the rest of the village was locked. The remote is the family’s only way to open the gate and leave their home.

“Think about this,” Hajajleh said. “If I need to go out and my wife is at a neighbor’s, how will I leave the house? If I’m at work, how will the rest of the family leave?”

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The Hajajleh house is the only one in Al-Walaja on the Israeli side of the separation barrier. For years, the state tried to get the family to leave, but they refused.

Four years ago, following a petition to the High Court of Justice, the Defense Ministry reached a settlement with the family through which a tunnel under the separation fence was built for them at a cost of four million shekels ($1.1 million). A large iron gate was built inside the tunnel – the house’s only entrance.

The agreement details family members’ rights in entering and leaving their home. For instance, it says that for anyone except a family member to pass through the gate, the family must submit a request to the Israeli-Palestinian liaison office 48 hours in advance, and it will be approved “subject to the usual security permits.” The family also can’t have more than 10 guests at a time, no guest may arrive after midnight or spend the night, and no merchandise can pass through the gate.

If the family violates these terms, they will be “denied the ability to open the gate independently, and instead the gate will be opened three times a day for an hour each time, and passing through it will be subject to a security check.”

Three days after the gate was locked, it broke and wouldn’t open. Hajahleh repaired it with help from his brother. “If I’d waited for them to come, they wouldn’t have come to this day,” he said. “It’s not by accident, it’s intentional. They want us out.”

Hajahleh says the state has harassed him for years to that end. Six years ago his wife miscarried in her eight month of pregnancy after a confrontation with soldiers. Also that year his son suffered a head injury during a demonstration near their house. Hajajleh was also served with a demolition order on the grounds that the house was built illegally, but the order was voided on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired.

Boys walk with a horse toward the metal gate separating the Hajajleh home from the village of Al-Walaja, December 11, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Just recently, after the fence around Al-Walaja was completed, the state started new proceedings against Hajajleh, saying that even though the house couldn’t be demolished, he was violating the law by living in an illegal building. He was also served with demolition orders against a chicken coop, well and bathroom that were added later.

“The chicken coop is four poles with a tin roof; the bathroom is one square meter. What do they want?” Hajajleh said. “It’s all political; they want to get rid of us. But I told Ofer Hindi,” the Israeli colonel in charge of the fence, “that I‘m not leaving this place, even if I have to live in a cave.”

Another underground crossing with a gate was built for Hajajleh’s neighbor, Ahmed Barghout, because his land and parents’ grave are on the other side of the fence from his house, just a few meters away.

“They still haven’t put on the lock, but they promised to give me a key,” he said. “I told them if I don’t get a key, I’ll break the lock. You live in your own house and feel like you’re in prison.”

Gaps in the fence

The Hajajleh home from the other side of the security barrier, December 11, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The Hajajleh family’s story seems even stranger given that not far from their home, on both sides of the village, there are two huge gaps in the fence – one 250 meters wide (820 feet) and one 20 kilometers wide. Neither is slated to be closed in the coming years.

The smaller gap, north of the house, is near the Cremisan Monastery. The High Court nixed the original route of the fence there due to the harm it would cause the monastery. The state promised to draft a new route, but has yet to do so. The larger gap is on the other side of the village.

The state hasn’t even finished the fence around Al-Walaja, despite a major effort in recent months, due to a geological problem caused by the Bethlehem bypass road, which was built in 1995 without a proper geological study. The road caused a spur of a nearby hill to collapse, created deep cracks in the ground and even led to the emergence of a new spring.

The Defense Ministry has been aware of the problem for years, but still heatedly defended the fence’s route. It rejected an alternative route proposed by Al-Walaja residents that would have run closer to the border between Israel and the West Bank and would not have separated the village from its land.

“All signs indicate that defense officials lied to the court and concealed from it that the fence route they were demanding couldn’t be built,” said Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for the left-wing organization Ir Amim. “Had information about the cracks been given to the court back then, it would have ruled that the alternative route proposed by the residents was preferable from every standpoint.

“One possibility is that to take over 1,000 dunams [247 acres] of land belonging to Al-Walaja residents, defense officials were willing to undermine Israelis’ security,” he continued.

“Another possibility is that the security arguments they used in court to justify building the fence along a route that creates enormous damage to village residents and the Jerusalem landscape were simply absurd.

“Meanwhile, there’s no justification for closing the vital road between Al-Walaja and Beit Jala and abusing the Hajajleh family when on the other side of the village they have no intention of finishing the fence, and the way to Jerusalem remains wide open.”

New park the reason?

One person involved in the issue said that building the fence despite the geological problems would be enormously expensive. Meanwhile, work on the barrier in this area has been halted.

Nor do there appear to be plans to finish the barrier anytime soon, given that south of Al-Walaja, where the gap extends for kilometers, lies the village of Battir. The state promised the High Court not to build the fence around Battir without giving the village notice that would let residents petition the court, since building the fence there would damage or destroy Battir’s ancient terraces.

Omar Hajajleh stands near the metal gate that is his family's only entrance and exit from the house, December 11, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The result is that over the past few months, the Defense Ministry has built a three-kilometer-long (1.9-mile) fence around Al-Walaja that separates the village from its agricultural land and hurts families like the Hajajlehs, but on both sides of the village, the fence is open and will remain open for the foreseeable future.

Given this, the real reason the fence was built around Al-Walaja may not have been security, but development of Jerusalem’s new metropolitan park, which runs from Emek Refaim Street to the edge of Al-Walaja.

Much of the park lies on Al-Walaja’s agricultural land. The major spring in the area, Ein Hania, has been renovated and will soon be opened to the public as an attraction in the park. A nearby checkpoint is also slated to move, thereby moving the spring from the Palestinian to the Israeli side of the fence.

Despite the area’s unique scenery and the new park, the fence around Al-Walaja is even uglier than it is in other places. It’s an eight-meter-high iron fence topped with rolls of barbed wire.

The Defense Ministry said it originally wanted a concrete wall there, but at the request of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, it sufficed with an ordinary fence. Still, the fence resembles a concrete wall because it’s almost completely solid. It is visible from afar and badly mars the view.

“The defense establishment consistently argued that we must preserve the principle that the fence should be continuous – now try to figure out what we built the fence for if it’s open,” said a government official involved in the matter.

“This entire project is being run the way it is because the fence has become a kind of automatic pilot for the defense establishment. It’s not really run from above; the ones running it are the contractors. When there’s a budget, they build; when there’s no budget, they stop.”

Meanwhile, for the Hajajlehs, every departure from their home requires logistical preparations to pass the remote from one person to the next. “You’re living in a prison, even if you have the key,” Hajajleh said.

For its part, the Defense Ministry said: “The fence in the Beit Jala area is nearing completion, in accordance with High Court rulings. Controlling and monitoring the people entering Omar Hajajleh’s house is a security necessity, and it’s done in accordance with a settlement validated by the High Court. If Omar needs and requests another remote, we’ll view the request affirmatively, as long he’s in full compliance with the agreement he signed about Palestinians entering his home.”

Regarding the 20-kilometer hole, it said, “This section requires an engineering solution different from the rest of the route. Therefore, due to defense budget priorities, at this stage the section won’t be built. Security control of this section is maintained through various complementary means.” The ministry also said it’s awaiting a government decision on the route around Battir.

As for the gap near the monastery, “This was in accordance with the High Court’s decision, and this opening, too, is controlled by the defense establishment. The defense establishment is committed to High Court rulings and upholds them to the letter, while analyzing all the threats and providing suitable security alternatives.”

Finally, regarding the fence’s appearance, the ministry said that though it did not build a concrete wall as was originally planned, it still wanted “an effective security fence” rather than the usual structure, which is more like “a marker,” hence the unusually solid construction.

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