Last week, in his speech to the UN Assembly General, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett didn’t mention the Palestinians. When cornered to say something about the millions subject to military rule and denied basic rights, he said he would diligently apply himself to ensuring their economic rights, as though millions of people can be expected to live without political rights forever.
But does Israel protect the Palestinians’ economic rights? In the upcoming days the Supreme Court will discuss the state’s demand (through the aggressive National Building Codes Enforcement Unit) to reject a lawsuit standing in the way of demolishing 38 homes in the village of Walaja. Walaja captures the essence of the occupation.
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When Israel conquered it in the 1967 Six Day War, it was already inhabited. Since then, according to the nongovernmental organization Ir Amim, Israel has refused to approve a master plan for the village, which is officially a neighborhood in Jerusalem. According to the authorities, Walaja is an “open landscape.” But the government can’t claim the construction there has been unlawful because the locale was built-up and populated when Israel assumed control.
Walaja today is cut in two by the separation barrier, surrounded by a wall with a single gate in it and a sign prohibiting Israelis from entering. The 1,200 dunums (300 acres) belonging to Walaja that were left outside the wall – and it’s a solid wall in the case of Walaja – were seized by Israel and turned into a “national park.” In the areas surrounding the village, there is plenty of construction – in Har Gilo and the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Gilo and Reches Lavan, all on Walaja lands seized by the state.
As a last resort, and as Israel is refusing to give the village a master plan, the residents created a plan of their own 16 years ago. However, the regional committee refused to discuss it for 15 years. A year ago, the court ordered the committee to discuss the plan, which it did, only to reject it. Now the government claims that since the committee “discussed” the master plan, the villagers’ lawsuit should be rejected out of hand and the houses destroyed forthwith.
A central argument of the planning committee is that the “empty area” is officially empty, even though it is developed and inhabited, and that “nature and landscape values” need to be protected by developing a park there. But there is already a park there – on Walaja lands seized after the village was walled in. Furthermore, the “landscape” the committee purports to defend is farmland worked by the people of Walaja for generations.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that the government of Israel is prioritizing a park over people. What Israel is doing here is reminiscent of what the Australians did to the Aborigines: They declared their lands terra nullius (empty land) and handed them over to the invading white settlers. Australia has already recognized its crimes and paid reparations – and the crime, remember, took place in the 19th century. But it’s still relevant today: The Aborigines still live there. The Australians have failed to annihilate them.
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The Palestinians aren’t going anywhere either. What we are doing to the people of Walaja is a crime and an injustice, and it, too, will come back to haunt us. But we can still prevent something of this crime. Otherwise, what is done in Walaja in our name and with our public funds will count as a disgrace for generations to come.