Palestinian Villagers Tilled Their Land So Well, Israel Is Now Confiscating It From Them

The separation barrier will cut residents of Al-Walaja from their lands by the end of the year; the beauty of the terraces they cultivated for decades was used as one of the main reasons for announcing the area a national park.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The homes of Al-Walaja looking down on the agricultural terraces and a barbed-wire Israeli fence.
The homes of Al-Walaja looking down on the agricultural terraces and a barbed-wire Israeli fence.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Two weeks ago, soldiers hung posters in the village of Al-Walaja, south of Jerusalem: “Notice of intent to acquire rights to the land and purchase ownership of the land required for public purposes.” In translation to non-legalese, these are orders to confiscate Palestinian land for the purpose of continuing building the West Bank separation barrier near the village.

According to the work plans, the construction of the barrier is scheduled to be concluded by the end of this year. The notice does not explain where exactly the additional land will be confiscated from. A resident who wishes to find out has to go to the Israel Land Authority offices in Jerusalem.

The problem is that the vast majority of the residents of Al-Walaja are unable to enter Jerusalem, because they are residents of the territories without Israeli work permits. That’s but one example of the Kafkaesque story that has made up the lives of the village’s residents in recent years.

As part of the absurdity, Al-Wajala’s terraces were cultivated for many years by the local Palestinian farmers. Now they’re one of the reasons for declaring the area around the village a national park – which, along with the separation barrier, threatens to keep the farmers away from the very terraces they nurtured.

The desire to preserve the landscape was one of the considerations for building the separation barrier almost adjacent to the homes of the residents rather than next to the Green Line (the pre-1967 borders of Israel).

In the name of landscape preservation, the barrier’s present route separates the villagers’ homes from their agricultural land. But the landscape already suffered serious damage when the Defense Ministry drove a wide road through the terraces several years ago. That road became superfluous after the route of the barrier was ordered changed by the Supreme Court.

A few weeks before the notices were posted in the village, the Antiquities Authority, Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Jerusalem Development Authority published a tender for “preservation and development work” in Ein Haniya, north of the village. Ostensibly there is no connection between the notice about the barrier and the tender. In the eyes of the residents of the small farming village, though, there’s a very clear connection: They see the barrier, a national park and appropriation of the Ein Haniya spring as a tourist attraction for Israelis as part of a larger plan to expel them from the area.

Home arrests

The current village of Al-Walaja was founded by refugees of the original Al-Walaja, which until 1948 was located on the other side of the Refaim stream (Nahal Refaim), and was abandoned during the War of Independence. With the expansion of the boundaries of Jerusalem after the Six-Day War, part of the village was also included inside the city. But Israel made sure to annex only the land, without granting the people living on it residence status. That’s why residents of Al-Walaja have been arrested several times for illegal residence in their own homes.

Eventually, the settlement of Har Gilo was built south of the village and a high concrete wall built between it and Al-Walaja. Now the security barrier and national park will close in the village from its other three sides (heading southeast to Bethlehem will be the only route out).

Anyone visiting the area these days will easily understand the desire of the Jerusalem municipality, Jerusalem Development Authority and INPA to turn the land into a national park for city residents. The village is built above Nahal Refaim, and dozens of ancient terraces descend from it to the stream below. The green landscape sparkles and is dotted with blossoming almond trees and anemones; the heavy rains have brought abundant water to the springs and one can find brooks in places.

At the heart of this area lies Ein Haniya, one of the most beautiful springs in the Judean Hills. Two large pools and numerous archaeological remains can be found next to it. The spring is also considered a sacred place for Greek Orthodox Christians. But the spring is important not only for hikers and pilgrims, but also the residents of Al-Walaja. Shepherds used to bring their sheep and goats to drink from it, and young men from the village would bathe or hang out there, alongside visiting Israelis.

In the past year, large-scale archaeological excavations have been carried out by the Antiquities Authority. The work was done as part of the project for developing the city’s ongoing Metropolitan Park – a large park that will eventually surround Jerusalem from the south and the west. According to the plan, Ein Haniya is scheduled to become one of the park’s focal points, with a restaurant, visitors’ center, paths and lighting.

Cremisan Monastery, near Bethlehem. Has a very exclusive access road.Credit: Emil Salman

There are plans for an educational farm next to the spring for organic produce. On the other side of the stream, they are working energetically to restore terraces as part of the park, while above them, the Biblical Zoo’s huge new aquarium is being built. Ein Haniya will join many other springs that were used previously by Palestinian residents, but subsequently became attractions for Israelis.

In the collective memory of village residents, they recall 17 springs they used to have during the village’s salad days. Village resident Yasser Halifa dug a small pool many years ago that drained the water of an adjacent spring in order to irrigate green plots on his terraces. About three years ago, tourists arrived and informed him that the pool appears in the tour guides as Ein Hezi.

Zeev Hacohen, the INPA’s regional planner, promises that, for now, the village residents will be able to use Ein Haniya – but he can’t promise what will happen after the barrier is built.

“The purpose of the work is to rehabilitate the water systems and turn it into a tourist site that is open to the general public. The site may be fenced off for security reasons, because there were incidents of vandalism there in the past,” says Hacohen.

Aviv Tatarsky belongs to the nonprofit Ir Amim, and has been helping the village residents for years. “Today,” he explains, “it’s clear to anyone who goes there that it’s on Palestinian territory. But you can imagine how it will be in a few years from now, with a visitors’ center, restaurant and hikers? People’s awareness will change and they will relate to it as Israeli territory. If they were to build a new settlement here, the whole world would be up in arms. But they’re making the area Israeli by means of the national park and nobody says anything.”

Currently, the spring is on the Palestinian side of the barrier. But when the barrier is completed, the residents are convinced the checkpoint will also be moved and their access to the spring will be blocked once and for all. The move is expected to separate the residents from their agricultural land as well.

The notices posted recently herald the resumption of work on the separation barrier. Work had progressed very slowly in the past few years. In 2013, work began on the barrier and the security road around the village: half the barrier was built, but then the work was unexpectedly discontinued. Even so, a large percentage of the farmers have already abandoned the terraces or switched to far less intensive cultivation of the land. Residents believe that closing access to the spring and completing the separation barrier are likely to lead to another stage in the abandonment of the land by those who cultivated it.

According to the plan, two “agricultural gates” are supposed to be built for the use of village residents. But the experience of West Bank villages with agricultural gates does not bode well: Nobody knows where they will be built, who will be allowed to use them, and what the procedures for opening them will be.

Kept in the dark

The terraces were cultivated for decades, perhaps even centuries, by the farmers of Al-Walaja. But now they are being used as one of the main reasons for expelling them from their land. When the route of the separation barrier was being planned, it was decided to factor the national park into the equation. In effect, a national park that was only possible because of the terraces is keeping out those who maintained them for so many years.

Although everyone recognizes the contribution of the residents of Al-Walaja to the lands, nobody bothered to inform them of the plans for building the national park or to promise that they would be able to continue working the land.

Hacohen declares without hesitation that the contribution of Al-Walaja’s farmers to preserving the landscape of the national park is important. But, as with the spring at Ein Haniya, he cannot promise them anything. “The defense establishment gave the residents of Al-Walaja agricultural gates. I’m sure that it doesn’t satisfy them, but I can’t do more than that. I’m really sorry to say that. If the barrier there is built and there are problems with the agricultural gates, I declare that we will side with the residents of Al-Walaja so the gates will function properly. But I can’t force the defense establishment to give [work] permits.”

In an affidavit Hacohen submitted to the Supreme Court several years ago, he expressed the fear that if the terraces remained on the Palestinian side of the separation barrier, they would be destroyed over time. “It’s clear to us we won’t have any influence or ability to safeguard the park in the areas on the other side of the barrier,” he wrote. “The risk is that the areas of ancient agriculture would be damaged and built in an uncontrolled manner.”

Meanwhile, the body responsible for tremendous damage to the landscape is the defense establishment, which paved its huge road – with the approval of the INPA – that cut through the terraces in the heart of the national park, and which everyone agrees blights the landscape. The purpose of the road was to create a bypass to the adjacent Cremisan Monastery. However, due to Supreme Court decisions, the route of the separation barrier was changed and the monastery will now remain on the Palestinian side, meaning the road was superfluous.

Despite the pressures and crises, Al-Walaja remains one of the most peaceful of Palestinian villages. Even during the stormiest demonstrations that were held here, almost no stones were thrown and nobody recalls any violence. “In Israel, we’re used to attributing violence to the Palestinians and to use their violence as justification for our deeds,” says Tatarsky. “In Al-Walaja, you can see that the violence comes from only one direction. The government behaves like the young Jewish extremists – it takes over a Palestinian spring and land. The extremists are condemned, but the takeover of Al-Walaja’s land is called the development of Jerusalem for the welfare of its residents.”

The Defense Ministry said it was working “to close the final gaps remaining in the security barrier that protects the residents of Jerusalem, in accordance with the route approved by the Supreme Court. Construction of the security barrier in the Al-Walaja region will be completed by the end of this year. As part of the completion of the route of the barrier, the defense establishment implemented a technical update of the boundaries of expropriation that were approved in 2011, in accordance with the precise route of the barrier that was actually built.”

Regarding the construction of the road to the monastery, the Defense Ministry had previously stated, “The route that was constructed was approved in the Court and planned in coordination with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, in order to minimize damage to the environment and to ensure protection for the residents of the Gilo neighborhood.”

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