Sheerin al-Araj, a prominent Palestinian activist from al-Walaja described her village this way in her TedEx Ramallah talk in 2011:
Al-Walaja is a microcosm of Palestine. It’s a window into the Palestinian people’s suffering. It’s a glimpse into the Palestinian people’s resilience, the Palestinian nation’s resilience. For me it is one of the most beautiful places on earth and believe me I have been to many places…. Among this beauty, there is madness – madness that stems from the Israeli occupation that began back in 1948. In October that year, my entire village was forced out by Zionist militias and we scattered all over the world as refugees, mainly in refugee camps in Amman, [Jordan].
Al-Walaja is a beautiful Palestinian village of around 2,000 people, located partly in the occupied West Bank’s Bethlehem governorate. It is well known for its water sources, its beautiful landscapes and agricultural terraces. According to UNWRA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, the village used to span more than 17,793 dunums (4,400 acres).
But after more than six decades of continuous dispossession, it stands to be reduced to around 3,000 dunums through the completion ofIsrael’s separation wall in the West Bank – meaning a loss of around 85 percent of its agricultural lands and a painful share of its cultural heritage.
The original village of al-Walaja used to be located a few kilometers away in today’s Jerusalem district, with its vast agricultural lands reaching into today’s Bethlehem area and occupied East Jerusalem.
In 1948, when most of historic Palestine was ethnically cleansed by Zionist militias, the residents were forced to leave. Some 75 percent of the village land, including its built-up area, was annexed to the newly declared State of Israel, from which the villagers have been barred ever since. While most fled to refugee camps in the region, some residents settled in caves and mud houses on village lands that lay across the 1949 armistice line (“Green Line”) hoping to return. As this hope dwindled over time, they built permanent structures and created today’s al-Walaja.
In 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, half of the new al-Walaja (2,095 dunums) was incorporated into Israel’s unilaterally expanded and annexed “Jerusalem municipality,” although residents of this area were not granted residency rights and subsequently faced decades of fines and house demolitions.
In the next decades, more village lands were illegally annexed for the construction of the Gilo and Har Gilo settlements, as well as for the construction of a “bypass road” that is reserved for the exclusive use of settlers. The construction of the wall, which began in 2007 in spite of an ongoing legal battle and protests, constitutes the latest chapter of the continuing history of dispossession of al-Walaja.
Once completed, it will encircle the built-up area of the village and annex most of the remaining agricultural lands to the ever-growing “Jerusalem municipality.” A single checkpoint will regulate access to the rest of the West Bank. Experience indicates that residents will likely face arbitrary difficulties reaching their work places, schools or basic services and will effectively be denied access to their agricultural lands on the other side of the wall. Many will see no option but to leave.
I started to visit al-Walaja in 2006 for one of the first organized demonstrations against the wall and have been documenting both the villagers’ resistance and the ongoing dispossession of their lands ever since. I witnessed the harsh repression against the villagers’ unarmed demonstrations. Old people, women and children sitting in front of the bulldozers violently dragged away by the Israeli army. Hundreds of trees uprooted. Pieces of mountains blown up. Farmers and shepherds losing their livelihoods and hope. Barbed wire and military gates erected around the village. Beautiful landscapes forever destroyed.
As the wall is about to be completed, it is urgent that we witness the ongoing struggle of the people of al-Walaja against the slow death of their beautiful village.
Absiya Jafari, who is more than 100-years-old, holds a Palestinian passport issued during the British Mandate, which governed Palestine from 1923 to 1948, belonging to her husband and herself, November 2013. The original village of al-Walaja was completely destroyed in 1948 during the Nakba – the ethnic cleansing that led to Israel’s establishment in 1948 – and all villagers were forced to leave and became refugees. Many fled to Jordan, Lebanon and the Bethlehem area. Today, 97 percent of the residents in al-Walaja are refugees.
Mohammad Awadallah, 72, near his house, November 2013. His house was damaged by explosions when the Israeli army blew up parts of the mountain to enlarge the route of the separation wall and he owns two dunums on the other side of the wall. He said, “the impact of the wall is that we are now in prison and lost our land. In addition there will be a gate at the entrance of the village, which will cause the collapse of the life of the village.”
A cardboard representation of the character Handala, created by the Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, during an event protesting the building of the wall, September 2012. Handala is a symbol of Palestinian resistance and steadfastness.
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