In a Village Divided, Palestinians See Their Hold on Territory Eroding


WALAJA, West Bank — On a gray metal gate that Israel built in the Palestinian village of Walaja hangs a biting sign: “Living behind this damned door and this spiteful wall is your brother and your son Omar Essa Hajajlah.”

The wall in question is part of the 440-mile-long barrier that Israel erected as a security measure years ago, largely separating its territory from the occupied West Bank. When it was built, it cut across Mr. Hajajlah’s long driveway, isolating him from his neighbors. The gate allows him and his family to cross from their home on one side of the wall into the rest of their village, though few are permitted to freely cross in the other direction.

Many of the major events that have shaped this corner of the Middle East have left their mark on Walaja — once a swath of terraced farmland with an ancient olive tree. Today, it serves as a pointed example of how decades of war, diplomatic agreements, Israeli settlement building, laws and regulations have carved up the West Bank and whittled away at territory under Palestinian control.

The 3,000 Palestinian residents of Walaja now live partly in the occupied West Bank and partly in Jerusalem, divided into several different zones governed by different laws and regulations. Palestinian leaders and rights groups say that this type of fragmentation undermines the possibility of ever building a Palestinian state on a contiguous piece of land.

“They want a land without its people so they can take the land without war and without loss of blood,” Mr. Hajajlah, 57, said of Israel, sitting on a broken chair on his terrace overlooking a valley with sheep grazing behind him. “And they are succeeding in this.”

The shrinking and division of Walaja began during the 1948 war when the 1,600 village residents fled their lands. This was part of what Palestinians call the nakba, or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes when Israel was created.

They resettled on a neighboring mountaintop that was part of Walaja’s agricultural lands and re-established their village on territory held by neighboring Jordan.

In the 1967 war, Israel defeated several Arab states that were mobilizing against it and seized control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt; the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan; and the Golan Heights from Syria.

Walaja was part of the captured West Bank.

Israel subsequently drew new municipal boundaries for Jerusalem, annexing some 17,000 acres of the West Bank into the city — land still considered occupied territory by most of the world. Jerusalem’s new municipal boundary cut through Walaja, putting part of the village in the West Bank, governed then by Israeli military law, and part in Jerusalem, where municipal laws and regulations applied.

In the post-1967 era, some of Walaja’s lands were taken to build Israeli settlements, according to the United Nations. Most of the world considers those settlements a violation of international law, though Israel insists that there has been a Jewish presence in the West Bank for thousands of years.

Then, in the 1990s, Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords, the first peace agreement ever between them, hailed at the time as a historic breakthrough.

Under the accords, the West Bank side of Walaja was further divided into two zones — one came under Palestinian administration and the other remained under Israeli control. Those designations have since determined what construction is permitted and who permits it, among other rules.

The agreements that created these divisions were meant to be temporary, but took on a more permanent air when the Oslo negotiations collapsed after failing to reach a lasting settlement.

In 2002, after a surge of Palestinian attacks, Israel began building the separation barrier — a system of fences and concrete walls running along or, in some places, inside the West Bank. When construction of the wall reached Walaja in 2012, it added a new division: isolating Mr. Hajajlah’s family from the rest of the village.

“Walaja is representative of the fragmentation of Palestinian lands,” said Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, an architect and urban planner with Bimkom, an independent Israeli organization that campaigns for Palestinian land rights, which are tightly restricted by Israel.

“The occupation and the land grab is very sophisticated and they are using all kinds of techniques,” he added. “And planning is a very powerful tool.”

Israeli officials have denied that they are trying to push Palestinians off the land and claim that, to the contrary in Jerusalem, the government has made it easier for them to get building permits.

“The security fence was built to serve security needs and prevent terrorism,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement, something that Israel has hailed as a success in cutting down the number of attacks. “There is great importance for this fence even today,” it added.

“The wall in Walaja does not divide the village, except for a single house that is located right where the fence was built,” the ministry said.

Two signs translated into English mark the entrance to Walaja: One in green reads, “Al Walajah Welcomes You.” The other, in red, says, “This Road Leads To Palestinian Village The Entrance For Israeli Citizens Is Dangerous.”

The sectors of the village are easily distinguishable by the housing in each area, a reflection of the different laws that govern them.

In the section of the West Bank side under full Israeli control, two- and three-story structures dominate the landscape. But in the West Bank zone administered by the Palestinian Authority rises a cluster of midlevel apartment buildings — allowing for more Palestinians to move in.

And in the parts of Walaja that are within the bounds of Jerusalem, piles of rubble line the winding mountain roads, testament to Israeli laws on bulldozing homes that lack building permits — a policy that overwhelmingly affects Palestinians.

At least 32 homes have been demolished in Walaja since 2016, according to Ir Amim, a Jerusalem advocacy group.

Ibrahim Araj and 37 other homeowners in Walaja have taken their fight against home demolitions to Israel’s Supreme Court, a move that has forestalled the destruction. A decision at the end of last month extended the injunction against demolitions for these 38 homes for another seven months and gave the residents a chance to advance a zoning plan that would allow them to apply for building permits.

The case only protects those 38 homes, though.

“Walaja itself is like a microcosm of all the violations that Israel commits,” said Mr. Araj, a 37-year-old lawyer, whose home has been under a demolition order since 2016. From the front porch of his unfinished home, he can hear the sound of construction from a nearby Israeli settlement on land that used to be part of Walaja.

The tiny fraction of the village administered by the Palestinian Authority is experiencing a mini construction boom.

Readily apparent even from a distance, a cluster of seven- and eight-story apartment buildings stick out from the hilly terrain of modest family homes and the occasional villa.

From his desk at his real estate office, Sami Abu al-Teen, 52, can see the seven-story apartment building he recently finished building, named after one of his daughters.

“The authority doesn’t have any control here. They have no police or anything,” said Mr. al-Teen. “But we can still go to them and get building permits.”

Mr. Hajajlah said he felt like his family’s home, built over three generations, was an island unto itself. Two cameras watch as he, his wife and three sons come and go through a gate in the separation barrier.

Israel’s Defense Ministry said it worked to find a solution for the family and built a direct passage to their home, allowing them to cross without restrictions. When inviting guests, however, the family is required to notify the authorities, the ministry said.

Before the wall was erected, Mr. Hajajlah said his home hosted large gatherings, especially around holidays. But his family and friends no longer want to come, concerned about Israeli soldiers from a nearby checkpoint who patrol by his home regularly.

As he escorts some rare guests out through the metal gate, he passes painted flowers and pro-Palestinian graffiti on the separation barrier that reads: “Existence is resistance.”


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