Bethlehem-Area Village of al Walaje Soon to be Completely Enclosed by Separation Wall
Ongoing construction of the Separation Wall around the Bethlehem-area village of al Walaje (photo by Marta Fortunato)
“Movement will be controlled, not restricted”, declared the Israeli High Court to the residents of al Walaje, a West Bank village four kilometres from Bethlehem which will be soon be completely enclosed by the Separation Wall.
Access to and from the village will be controlled by a gate, manned 24 hours a day by the Israeli army. Over 15000 dunams of al-Walaje’s lands have been confiscated by Israel since 1948, and now just 2800 dunams remain for the village.
The tormented story of al Walaje began in 1948 when the Israeli army occupied the village, confiscated its lands and forced the residents to leave their houses and move into caves. “Since that time our life has changed, family and social connections have started to weaken” Shirin al-‘Araj, one of the leaders of the Popular Committee of al Walaje, tells the Alternative Information Center (AIC). “In one day the residents of the village were scattered throughout different parts of the valley, living in caves. Communication was difficult. My parents, like thousands of other Palestinian refugees, thought they would return to their homes very soon”. On the contrary, time passed and they were prevented from going back. At the same time they didn’t want to leave the caves because “moving in other places was like a defeat for them, because it meant they never would return to their homes” Shirin continues.
However, during the 1960s, al Walaje residents started moving into new buildings located on the land left to the village after 1948. And this is the place where the village is perched today.
The tragedy of al Walaje continued in 1967 when part of the village was annexed by the Jerusalem Municipality, even though West Bank identity cards were given to the residents. In the beginning nobody understood the difference between the identity cards because at that time people were free to move between the West Bank and Israel. “Only from 1994, after the first check points and the first restrictions on our right of movement, we understood the meaning of our identity card: going to Jerusalem would soon be impossible,” Shirin concludes.
Israel’s land confiscation has never stopped: in 1971 more than 4000 dunams of lands were confiscated to build the East Jerusalem colony of Gilo and later, in 1979, the hill where today the colony of Har Gilo is being built, was taken from the village. Over 15000 dunams of al-Walaje’s lands have been taken away since 1948 and now just 2800 dunams remain for the residents of this village, who struggle daily against construction of the Separation Wall. Once the Separation Wall is completed, al Walaje will be totally enclosed by it and a tunnel and gate will provide the only access out, to nearby Beit Jala. This means that al Walaje will be completely closed and all access to and from the village will be monitored and controlled by the Israeli army. “We fear that al Walaje will become a new Qalandya, where the only checkpoint to enter the city closes at 5pm and access is permitted only to residents” Shirin says. “Every day we lose some of our rights and our freedom, including the right to demonstrate in a non-violent way”.
Al Walaje residents are afraid of organizing non violent demonstrations against the Separation Wall because in the past some residents, including several children, were severely injured by the Israeli army and work permits were torn up by Israeli soldiers in front of the residents, who stood in disbelief. Why take this risk? Why render al Walaje’s children innocent victims of Israel’s injustice?
“We don’t want other children injured, we don’t want other innocent people punished just because they take part in non-violent demonstrations. We can’t bear this burden anymore, it’s too much” Shirin continues.
Walking in the village it’s impossible not to notice construction of the Separation Wall: noisy trucks carry sand and stones from one part of the village to the other and there is a gray wall that defines the perimeter of al Walaje and suddenly stops. The Separation Wall won’t be built on the Green Line, here as in many other villages in the West Bank. It is just one of the several ways that Israel uses to occupy Palestinian land and annex it to Israel. To be on the Green Line, the Separation Wall in al Walaje should be built far to the West, on the slope of Gilo settlement, but it will be built on the other side of the valley, close to the village of al Walaje. This means that thousands of dunams will be confiscated.
This plan was further sustained by the Salesian community, whose monastery is located between the settlement of Gilo and al-Walaje, between the Green Line and the rapidly rising Separation Wall. The Salesian community didn’t stand against the Israeli plan and did not support the struggle of al-Walaje community.
It was particularly shocking to hear the story of a family in al Walaje, whose house will be separated from the village and will be on the “Israeli” side once construction of the Separation Wall is completed. However, the Israeli government doesn’t want this family to have free access to Israel, so it is planning to build a four meter high electronic fence all around the house and to establish a personal check point for access to al Walaje. Moreover, the family’s land will be confiscated because it will then be located on the other side of the Separation Wall.
One of the reasons given by the Israeli government for the planned route of the Separation Wall and to justify the annexation of thousands of dunams of land is that the Wall would pass “too close” to the zoo in West Jerusalem if it was built on the Green Line. “Do you understand how serious this situation is?” Shirin asks with indignation. “This means that for the Israeli government, the life of Israeli animals is more important than life of a Palestinian family”.