A Palestinian resident of a village that straddles the border between Jerusalem and the West Bank is now being barred from entering Israel, although he technically lives on the Israeli side of the border. The move by Israeli authorities comes after the family of the man, Omar Hajajla, was cut off for more than a week from the rest of Al-Walaja, on the southern edge of Jerusalem, after Israeli authorities claimed that he had transported Palestinians through a tunnel under the separation barrier in violation of orders.
The family lives in the only house in the village that is on the Israeli side of the barrier separating Israel and the West Bank. The house is within the city limits of Jerusalem but the barrier cuts the family off from the rest of from the village. For years, the Defense Ministry and other agencies tried to coax the family to move, but to no avail. In the end, at a cost 4 million shekels (currently $1.1 million), the ministry was forced to build the family a special passageway under the barrier to give them access to the rest of the village, on the West Bank side.
Two years ago, a gate was installed at the end of the tunnel and various conditions were imposed on the family’s use of the tunnel and the gate. Among the restrictions, visits by all guests must be approved in advance. Guests cannot arrive after 10 P.M., and they are barred from moving merchandise through the tunnel.
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The construction of the separation barrier was completed a year and a half ago. The family’s life was complicated further when they were given only one remote control to open their gate. That meant that if someone left the house early and took the remote with them, the rest of the family was trapped at home.
To ease the situation, Omar Hajajla installed an electric bell near the gate.
“We put the bell in a year ago so that, when the kids come home, they can press it and their mother opens the gate, since the remote stays at home,” he explained. Border policemen discovered the bell ten days ago. They took Hajajla in for several hours of questioning and put a new lock on the gate so that it could not be opened at all.
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The border police denied that Hajajla was being harassed and said that he is suspected of transporting people through the tunnel in violation of orders. Hajajla claims that he was not questioned about bringing people through the tunnel, but only about damage caused to the gate. Under questioning, the detective accused him of cutting into a cable running through the tunnel and stealing power. Hajajla had a different explanation.
“A contractor came half a year ago to repair the gate without a generator,” he said, “so they pulled a wire from the ceiling, cut the cable for the welding machine and left the cable cut.” Hajajla was fined 500 shekels ($140) and released, but the lock on the gate was not removed.
Because there are no roads between the family home and the rest of Israel, family members cannot use their car and have been forced walk 6 kilometers (about 3.5 miles) to the Cremisan Monastery, where there is a breach in the fence, to get anywhere – school, the grocery store, to work or to visit relatives. From there, they go the West Bank town of Beit Jala and back to the West Bank side of Al-Walaja, just a few meters from their home. On Sunday afternoon, following an inquiry by Haaretz, the lock was removed from the gate.
That same day, however, on his way to work, Hajajla discovered that his security clearance had been revoked and he was not allowed through an Israeli checkpoint. Hajajla claimed that the clearance was revoked because he had contact the media regarding his situation.
“If I’m being detained because of the investigation, why did it take a week before they barred me from entering [Israel]?” he asked. “It could be that, after we made a stink about the lock, they removed the lock and took my permit away.”
For its part, the Israel Police responded: “As we have indicated, the father of the family is suspected of taking advantage of the gate to improperly bring Palestinians through it and was therefore taken in for questioning. All investigations that involve suspicion of security-related crimes of Palestinians result in the revocation of entry permits into Israeli territory until the suspicions can be clarified and/or an indictment filed. This is an automatic process and not as a result of a specific request in one case or another. And to dispel any doubt, media coverage is not a parameter or consideration whatsoever in this investigation.”
The police added, “Israel Police will continue to mete out justice to all those who would damage security crossings and improperly take advantage of them, all to prevent harm to the security of the State of Israel."
According to Hajajla, the harassment began about a month ago, when a Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court judge for local affairs rejected the state’s contention that the family’s home is illegal. Judge Sigal Albo said in her ruling that the state filed a criminal indictment regarding the family home 11 years after Hajajla was acquitted on charges involving illegal construction, although the state claimed that the new charges involve making use of a building that was built without a building permit. The judge said the new indictment pertaining to the same building “does harm to the sense of justice and fairness and leads to the conclusion that it was defective to file an indictment with such considerable delay.”