Wallajeh: Displacement, Dispossession and Demolition

Wallajeh: Displacement, Dispossession and Demolition

This story shares many similarities with every Palestinian story, yet the story of the Wallajeh village seems unrivaled in its absurdity. Encircled by the District Coordinating Office (DCO) checkpoint in Beit Jala, the Jewish settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo, the Biblical Zoo (which sits on Wallajeh land), Hadassah Ein Karem hospital, and Teddy Kollek football stadium, Wallajeh has nearly been subsumed by "Greater Jerusalem." Indeed, Israel 'unknowingly' annexed almost half of the village of 2000 people to the municipality of Jerusalem 38 years ago.

On 21 October 1948, almost all Wallajeh homes sitting on 17,704 dunums (4,426 acres) were demolished via Israeli Operation Har'el; most residents were forced to flee to refugee camps in Jordan. Today, the vast majority of the village population remains in Jordan with an estimated 12,500 refugees registered with UNRWA.(1) Some individuals and families slowly returned to Wallajeh. Subsequently, they began to build rooms (some even resided in caves) on the remaining portion of their village, seeing their displacement as a temporary matter.

In the 1960's, residents gradually came to the realization that their inability to return to their lands and properties may be more permanent, and many began building houses. However, after the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank, legally building in Wallajeh became nearly impossible as housing permits were seldom granted. Also in 1967, while mapping the Israeli annexation of the eastern part of Jerusalem, government surveyors unknowingly included the Ein Juweiza neighborhood of Wallajeh, which holds 92 homes with hundreds of villagers.

In the early 1980's, the Civil Administration commenced demolishing 'illegal' homes, which meant all villagers who built after 1967 (ostensibly without a permit) were subject to losing their homes. In 1981, while homes continued to be demolished, Israeli officials finally discovered that they had annexed Ein Juweiza, and the body in charge of demolition switched to the Jerusalem municipality. For over 14 years, these Wallajeh villagers had no idea that they were actually living in eastern Jerusalem.

However, the sudden transition from the West Bank to eastern Jerusalem seemingly made little difference; village homes were still being demolished. "Nothing has changed," noted Wallajeh villager Sheerin al-Araj, a trainer for conflict transformation. The Jerusalem municipality provided nothing to the annexed portion of the village by way of schools, utilities, health or social services, though the city was more than eager to provide more home demolition.

The Wall

There is an apparent Israeli strategy of divide and conquer when it comes to Wallajeh, which is reflected in the original design of the Wall's path bisecting the eastern Jerusalem/West Bank sides of the village. Such a seemingly impractical plan of keeping part of the Palestinian village in the West Bank fits perfectly into the Zionist idea of development according to Sheerin al-Araj: "as much as land as possible with as less [sic] people as possible." Fortunately, the villagers prevailed, and the court ruled that the Wall's path divided the village in two for no particular reason.

As things currently stand, the Wall will encircle all of Wallajeh, excluding it from Jerusalem, with the sole exit to the West Bank via an underground tunnel.(2) This will make travel to Jerusalem increasingly arduous and time-consuming, especially for villagers employed in Jerusalem. Additionally, the Wall will separate many villagers from their farmlands, possibly depriving them of their primary (if not only) means of livelihood.

Differing strategies of how to deal with their plight have divided villagers. Lower Wallajeh residents generally maintain the position of rejecting the eastern Jerusalem annexation as a fact, and Upper Wallajeh residents wish to accept the annexation and attempt to legalize their status as residents of Jerusalem. Such differences have led to mistrust and harsh feelings between many villagers. The main obstacle to gaining residence in Jerusalem is the "Center of Life" test, which, realistically, no Wallajeh villager could pass. Indeed, in Israel's continual drive to Judaize eastern Jerusalem, the Interior Ministry has required rigorous documentation for "confirmations of places of employment, arnona [land tax], electricity, water, and telephone bills" to gain residency in Jerusalem.(3).

Family Reunification Ban on Palestinians Extended

On 30 May 2005 the Israeli Knesset extended by an additional three months limitations on the granting of residency and citizenship status to Palestinians who marry Israeli Arabs. Coalition Chairman Gideon Sa'ar said “the solid majority today in the Knesset plenum testifies to the determination to maintain the security of Israel and its character as the state of the Jews.” (Ha'aretz, 30 May 2005)

The amended law only permits Palestinian women over the age of 25 and Palestinian men over the age of 35 to apply for family reunification with their Israeli spouses. These criteria are arbitrary in nature and apply to only a small percentage of the couples seeking family reunification, as most marry at an earlier age. Israeli authorities are not required to inform applicants about the basis of the allegations of their relatives or to give them the opportunity to challenge those allegations. Only new applications will be processed.

Amnesty International described the as discriminatory in its explicit denial of family rights on the basis of national origin. The latest amendment and extension of the law, says Amnesty, rather than bringing it into line with international human rights standards and Israel's Basic Laws, includes exceptions to the law based on age and gender. (Amnesty International, Joint Letter to Israeli Knesset Members, 22 May 2005)

Even villagers living in annexed Ein Juweiza have no substantive documentation from the Jerusalem municipality that proves a significant connection with Israel. By not providing Ein Juweiza with any services despite levying taxes, the municipality effectively claimed jurisdiction over the land but not its inhabitants. Moreover, the future denial of access to Jerusalem through the wall is the clearest indication that Israel has no desire to grant any villagers Jerusalem residency. However, even an application for Jerusalem residency entails certain risks. Sheerin's uncle had 80 dunums of land annexed to Jerusalem, but if he applies for a Jerusalem ID to legally access his land, he admits to not living on that land - making him an "absentee" and subjecting his land to Israeli confiscation.

Israeli officials adopted their typical tack for desired land expropriation. There are currently 20 orders of demolition for 17 'illegally built' houses in Wallajeh, which have about 12 months remaining in which to contest the orders in court or miraculously obtain a license. In addition, many residents face exorbitant fines of 7,000-300,000 shekels for building without a license.

Residents also experience harassment from the occupation forces, who admonish residents to sell their homes and leave Wallajeh. Israeli municipal authorities want villagers in Ein Juweiza to sign a document that stipulates that their homes are in eastern Jerusalem, and that they are residing illegally in Jerusalem as they hold West Bank identification cards. Such an admission simplifies the process of annexation and displacement, and eliminates the need for a lengthy litigation ordeal for the government to demolish homes.

The Israeli plan is simple: the signed document would allow the Israelis to expel residents to the West Bank; the vacated lands would then be considered "abandoned" by the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property; and this would clear the way for Israeli state acquisition or transfer to a parastatal institution like the Jewish National Fund (Himnuta, a JNF subsidiary, already claims to own lands in this area). No resident has yet signed any such document.

Consequently, Israeli authorities have increased pressure to 'convince' villagers to leave 'voluntarily;' for instance, border police began arresting Wallajeh villagers for living 'illegally' in Israel. Traveling to Beit Jala or Ramallah has become increasingly difficult, as the villagers hold West Bank ID, providing Israeli pretext for harassment. Sheerin al-Araj is accustomed to lengthy checkpoint delays due to the intransigence of Israeli soldiers who refuse to believe she lives in Wallajeh. She even brings a utility bill when traveling as proof that she lives in her home.

Muhammad and the legal mountain

The story of Muhammad Mousa al-Sheikh typifies the Wallajeh villager experience, if only because the Israelis sought to test their methods of forced displacement on him and his family before implementing them on the rest of the village. Muhammad is the oldest of six brothers, each brother has spent varying times in prison for resistance activities against the Israeli occupation, so much so that until recently, it had been about 20 years since all the brothers had been together. They live among a family of 20 in a two-story home in Ein Juweiza that is under orders for a second floor demolition in 2006 (the first floor was legally built prior to annexation). In 1998, the family first received demolition orders and a 49,000 shekel fine for building a second floor without a permit from the Jerusalem municipality.

Muhammad contested the demolition orders in court and won, but still had to pay the fine. In 2002, the municipality issued another demolition order, and in August 2003, the municipality commenced destroying the second floor of the al-Sheikh home. The Israelis began second floor demolition before the family could remove any of their possessions. At this time, Muhammad managed to get the court to stop the order. Although the second floor was rendered uninhabitable, "it was an achievement for us to get them to stop the demolition," said Muhammad. He's unsure of whether it is the location of the al-Sheikh home or the resistance activities of his brothers that is the main cause of the Israeli actions towards them.

In February 2004, the Israeli occupation forces began to intensify its harassment of the al-Sheikh family. After Muhammad missed one monthly payment on their fine, border police/police/army arrested all of the brothers. Though the standard procedure for missed payment is penalty or interest charges, the brothers remained in jail for 5 days before paying bail. Just two months later, at 4am on an April morning, the entire family (except one sleeping brother) was taken out of the home by Israeli forces, and five of the brothers were detained.

The brothers believed that they were about to witness their home being demolished, but they were taken to checkpoint 300 near Bethlehem where the Israeli border police told them, "we caught you in Jerusalem without a permit." This came as quite a shock to Muhammad and his brothers, as the Palestinian Authority provided electricity, water, and other utilities, while the Jerusalem municipality provided nothing aside from bulldozing. "We never asked [Jerusalem] for anything. We never dealt with them," said Muhammad.

The police offered the brothers a way out: if they signed a document recognizing that they lived in Jerusalem, they would be released. If they had signed, the brothers would have been free after two hours of detention. Instead, the brothers' collective refusal to recognize the annexation of their land marked the beginning of a peculiar 15-day ordeal in jail. In court, the judge said that without the document signed the government did not have a case, and ordered the brothers released.

However, the government added security related charges, so the judge issued a temporary order keeping them in jail. Upon appeal, a different judge noted there was no case against the brothers, and that they could go until the government could provide the admission of annexation documents. The men were finally released on 23,000 shekels bail, though the army subsequently began arresting other Wallajeh villagers for illegally residing in Jerusalem.

In June 2004, the army demolished the homes of Wallajeh residents Dr. Omar Ayub Radwan and Mahmoud Abu Khiara. The villagers petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court, and the court issued a temporary order for the government to cease arresting and harassing the people of Wallajeh. The army stopped arresting villagers but made its presence known by demolishing 'illegally built' farm houses in January 2005.

The villagers had to get another Supreme Court temporary order against the army to stop demolitions in general. Refusing to be thwarted in their quest to drive Wallajeh villagers away, the army then resorted to confiscating all cars with Palestinian license plates for being in Israel without permission. Fortunately for one Wallajeh family, they owned one car with Palestinian plates and one car with Israeli plates, so the disappointed army begrudgingly left the family with one car.

In any event, as for the al-Sheikh family, the brothers managed to pay off the 49,000 shekel fine in February 2005. However, in March 2005 the Israeli authorities issued an additional fine of 30,000 shekels for their illegally rebuilt second floor. Payment of this second fine is made no easier by the fact that three of the brothers are unemployed, and the second floor of their home is scheduled to be demolished in June 2006. When asked about the prospect of leaving, Muhammad Mousa al-Sheikh reflected the attitude of Palestinians in general, "it will never happen."

Ali Durrani is a 3rd year law student at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, USA and a summer intern at BADIL.

Endnotes:
(1) The figure is based on Salman Abu-Sitta, The Palestinian Nakba: The Register of Depopulated Localities in Palestine. London: Palestinian Return Centre, 1998. The 1997 numbers are multiplied by 3.5% annual growth rate for 2005.
(2) Applied Research Center in Jerusalem, 'Trapped Within the Claws of Occupation- Bethlehem Western Rural Villagers Stripped of Their Lands,' (19 May 2005), available at, http://www.poica.org/editor/case_studies/view.php?recordID=572.
(3) The Quiet Deportation Continues: Revocation of Residency and Denial of Social Rights of East Jerusalem Palestinians. Jerusalem: Ha'moked/B'Tselem, 1998, p. 16.