Palestinian village ‘will be like a prison’
A planned Israeli national park will cut deep into the agricultural land of the Palestinian village of Wallajeh.

Nigel Wilson | 04 Mar 2016 11:33 GMT | Human Rights, Middle East, War & Conflict, Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Israel

Occupied East Jerusalem – Imad leaned over the Ein Haniya spring and dipped his face into the gushing water.

“Very good!” called out Imad, who did not provide a last name. “Better than bottled water!”

Nearby, sheep and goats grazed on green terraces as Bedouin shepherds chatted in the shade, puffing on cheap cigarettes.

Imad, himself a shepherd, makes the short trip from Wallajeh village to the spring four times a week with his sheep, as he has done for decades. The ample vegetation and availability of fresh, natural water have made it a popular spot for local Palestinian farmers.

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But this way of life is coming under threat. The area around the spring, which is on the Israeli side of the Green Line, is set to be transformed into a visitors’ centre for a planned Israeli national park.

The Emek Refaim park, which will cross the Refaim Valley and the Green Line and cut deep into the agricultural land of the Palestinian village of Wallajeh, will consist of hiking trails, bike routes, green space and barbecue pits.

Uri Rehav, district manager at the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority, said shepherds would continue to be allowed to the Ein Haniya spring in the near-term. As to the future, Rehav was uncertain, noting it would depend on whether the route of Israeli’s separation wall would divide Wallajeh from the spring.

In late January, Israel announced its intention to seize five dunams (5,000 square metres) of land in northern Wallajeh to build the separation wall. This will cut the village off from an additional 1,000 dunams of agricultural land, most of which would be absorbed into the Emek Refaim park.

The nearby villages of Battir and Beit Jala would lose an additional 200 dunams of their land to the Israeli park, while the Ein Haniya spring would be developed into part of a visitors’ centre for the park and potentially rendered inaccessible to Palestinians from Wallajeh.

“After they finish the wall, Wallajeh will be like a prison. The wall will go all the way around, just like a prison,” said Omar Hajajla, a resident of Wallajeh. “Small or big, it will be like a prison.”

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Already walled in to the east and southeast since 2012 to accommodate the Israeli settlement of Har Gilo, Wallajeh has been cut off from Jerusalem and surrounding Palestinian villages. Its residents now have just a single entry and exit point, although there are gaps in the existing razor-wire fence that some have been using to come and go. Upon completion under its planned route, the separation wall would completely encircle the village.

“I used to take my kids to school in the Cremisan Valley, and it took three minutes only,” said Hajajla, pointing eastward towards the school from his home on the eastern edge of Wallajeh. “After they closed [a road leading to the school] and they built the wall, I have to drive through Wallajeh, to Beit Jala, and then back to the Cremisan school. It now takes 40 minutes.”

The predicament of Wallajeh should be viewed within the broader context of development in southern Jerusalem since the separation wall started being built more than a decade ago, according to Israeli human rights NGO Ir Amim.

“When it comes to national parks in East Jerusalem, there’s nothing apolitical about them. This isn’t about greening the city,” said Betty Herschman, the group’s director of international relations and advocacy.

“This is about using the declaration of a space as a national park for strategic purposes. And in this case, what the park will do is further isolate Wallajeh. And if you isolate Wallajeh, it creates easier contiguity to Jerusalem for the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.”

Southern Jerusalem, on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, has been the subject of intense development in recent years. The Israeli settlement of Har Homa is in the midst of a vast expansion, while the new settlement of Givat Hamatos has also been approved.

Another settlement, Gilo, is expanding to the south, while a new six-lane highway will soon be built through the middle of the Palestinian neighbourhood of Beit Safafa, creating a continuous stretch of highway from the Gush Etzion bloc to the centre of Jerusalem.

“Connect all of those dots and we have the full consolidation of the southern perimeter of East Jerusalem, completely undermining the contiguity of land between East Jerusalem and West Bank required for a future Palestinian state,” said Herschman. “It is part of a series of developments that, when cumulatively looked at, show a very dangerous political outcome.”