One village's death by a thousand cuts

Joseph Dana writes about his first visit to Al Walaja, a Palestinian village on the border of Jerusalem that will soon be encircled by the Israeli separation barrier

Palestinians walk along a demolished road by Israel leading to the village of Al Walaja in the West Bank. Musa Al Shaer / AFP
Powered by automated translation

My first visit to the village of Al Walaja in 2009 was little more than an afterthought. Having spent most of the day in Bethlehem monitoring Israeli settlement encroachment around the hilltop city, a friend suggested we stop by Al Walaja on our way back to Jerusalem. A non-violent protest movement was taking shape in the village.

Al Walaja sits above a neatly terraced hillside, close to Jerusalem's southern edge. From the verandas of village homes, you can see Malha Mall and Teddy football stadium, home to the ultranationalist Beitar Jerusalem team. Over the past decade, the Israeli military has aggressively pushed for the creation of its separation barrier on Al Walaja's border as part of a larger plan to remove Palestinian villages from the Jerusalem municipality.

The pattern is simple: put the village on the West Bank side of the wall, declare a new city boundary, and get rid of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Jerusalemites.

Al Walaja is unique given its proximity to both Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The plans for the barrier, which have been partially carried out, effectively turn Al Walaja into an open-air prison by encircling the village with an eight-metre high concrete wall and a series of fences. Last week, Israeli bulldozers, accompanied by soldiers, entered the village under the cover of darkness and destroyed three homes for “lacking building permits”.

On my first visit to the village, I had a cup of tea with an older resident named Abu Nidal who was leading the non-violent protests. Over the course of several months, I followed Abu Nidal as he fought for his land through the Israeli legal system. A former militant in Fatah's armed wing, Abu Nidal, now in his late sixties but looking much older, approached the conflict from a nihilist perspective.

With hardened eyes and fluent Hebrew – gleaned from years working as a plumber in West Jerusalem – Abu Nidal described the inescapable arm of Israel’s occupation. With the noise of construction crews hammering and drilling in the background to build the separation barrier, Abu Nidal watched as his land was swallowed before his eyes.

“It is as if I am slowly being deprived of oxygen,” Abu Nidal told me in the course of filming an unfinished documentary. “First they destroyed my olive grove and eventually, I will have to go through an Israeli checkpoint to reach Bethlehem.”

While seeking justice through the Israeli court system, the village has also pursued the route of non-violent protests against the wall to defend its land and attract attention in the international press. Neither option has delivered concrete results; rather, the village’s inevitable fate has been delivered slowly, as the recent wave of house demolitions confirms. As such, Al Walaja's struggle is an example of the slow but crushing nature of Israel’s expanding control of the West Bank.

The residents of Al Walaja have a unique legal status. Half the village sits inside Jerusalem’s municipal boundary so half the village’s residents hold Jerusalem ID cards, which give them a special status that falls somewhere between that of a West Bank resident and full Israeli citizen. Jerusalem ID holders are permitted to freely travel and work inside Israel and receive national insurance, but they are not Israeli citizens and therefore cannot vote in national elections. They must also adhere to strict residency requirements to maintain this special status, and the wall’s route will effectively strip them of their status by placing the village beyond city boundaries. Once complete, Al Walaja’s residents will no longer be split by resident status: those with Jerusalem ID cards will be stripped of their special status because they will no longer be residents of Jerusalem.

Disconnecting Palestinian villages such as Al Walaja from Jerusalem is Israel’s way of creating demographic facts on the ground and Judaising Jerusalem. It is a form of militarised urban planning, with the expressed desire to change the ethnic complexion of a city. Not only will the wall block Al Walaja's access to its olive groves and water springs, but it means access to Jerusalem and Bethlehem will be regulated by the Israeli army. Access is granted through special gates Israel refers to as “agricultural gates”, which are opened on particular days and at specific times at the sole discretion of the army. As prisoners in their own village, Kafka could barely have imagined a more draconian reality for the people of Al Walaja.

With the unlikely assistance of Israeli environmental groups concerned about the destruction of natural terraces surrounding Al Walaja and the creation of an unsightly wall on Jerusalem’s southern edge, villagers from Al Walaja unsuccessfully petitioned the Israeli high court to block the construction of the wall. Israel’s high court is routinely cited by advocates of the country as a demonstration of Israeli democracy and confirmation of the country’s legal checks and balances. But when it comes to the separation barrier and most other matters of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the high court has regularly rubber-stamped the Israeli military’s aggressive plans of entrenchment and control.

When we conceive the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, images of fighting or stabbing or bombing quickly come to mind. However, the relentless daily suffocation of villages such as Al Walaja, with Israel’s Kafkaesque urban planning and discriminatory legal protections, is the most insidious manifestation of the conflict. It is this unsensational daily violence that remains constant and entrenches the conflict.

On Twitter: @ibnezra