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: “Behind this accursed door and malevolent wall are 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 crossed Mr. Hajajlah’s long driveway, isolating him from his neighbours. The gate allows him and his family to cross from their house on one side of the wall to the rest of their village, although few are allowed to cross freely in the other direction.

Many of the major events that shaped this corner of the Middle East have left their mark on Walaja – once a strip of terraced farmland with a century-old 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 shrunk the 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 areas governed by different laws and regulations. Palestinian leaders and rights groups say this kind 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 bloodshed,” Hajajlah, 57, said of Israel, sitting in a broken chair on his terrace overlooking a valley with sheep grazing behind him. “And they succeed.”

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

They resettled on a nearby mountain peak that was part of Walaja farmland 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 later drew new municipal borders for Jerusalem, annexing some 17,000 acres of the West Bank to the city – land still considered occupied territory by most of the world. Jerusalem’s new municipal boundary ran through Walaja, putting part of the village in the West Bank, then governed by Israeli military law, and part in Jerusalem, where municipal laws and regulations applied.

In the post-1967 era, some of Walaja’s land was taken to build Israeli settlements, according to the United Nations. Most of the world views these settlements as a violation of international law, although Israel insists 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 ever peace agreement between them, hailed at the time as a historic breakthrough.

According to the agreements, the West Bank side of Walaja was divided into two areas – one came under Palestinian administration and the other remained under Israeli control. These designations have since determined what construction is allowed and who allows it, among other rules.

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

In 2002, after a wave of Palestinian attacks, Israel began building the separation barrier – a system of concrete fences and walls bordering 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 land,” said Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, architect and urban planner with Bimkom, an independent Israeli organization that campaigns for Palestinian land rights, which are strictly limited by Israel.

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

Israeli officials have denied that they are trying to drive Palestinians off the land and say that, unlike in Jerusalem, the government has made it easier for them to obtain building permits.

“The security fence was built to meet security needs and prevent terrorism,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement, which Israel hailed as a success in reducing the number of attacks. “There is great significance to this fence, even today,” he added.

“Walaja’s wall does not divide the village except for a single house which is 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 a Palestinian village, the entrance for Israeli citizens is dangerous.

The sectors of the village are easily distinguished by the dwellings of each district, a reflection of the different laws which govern them.

In the section on the West Bank side under full Israeli control, two- and three-story structures dominate the landscape. But in the Palestinian Authority-administered area of ​​the West Bank stands a cluster of mid-level apartment buildings, allowing more Palestinians to move in.

And in parts of Walaja that lie within Jerusalem’s borders, heaps of rubble line winding mountain roads, testament to Israel’s laws on the bulldozing of houses without building permits – a policy that massively 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 Walaja homeowners took their fight against home demolitions to Israel’s Supreme Court, a decision that prevented the destruction. A ruling late last month extended the injunction against the demolitions of those 38 homes by seven months and gave residents a chance to advance a zoning plan that would allow them to apply for building permits.

The case only protects those 38 houses, however.

“Walaja itself is like a microcosm of all the violations committed by Israel,” said Mr. Araj, a 37-year-old lawyer, whose house has been under a demolition order since 2016. From the porch of his unfinished house, he can hear the sound of the construction of a nearby Israeli settlement on land that was once part of Walaja.

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

Easily apparent even from afar, a cluster of seven- and eight-storey apartment buildings stand out against the rolling terrain of modest family homes and the occasional villa.

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

“The authority has no control here. They have no police or anything,” Mr. al-Teen said. “But we can still go and see them and get building permits.”

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

The Israeli Defense Ministry said it was working to find a solution for the family and built a direct passage to their home, allowing them to cross without restrictions. However, when inviting guests, the family is required to notify the authorities, the ministry said.

Prior to the erection of the wall, Mr Hajajlah said his house hosted large gatherings, particularly during holidays. But his family and friends no longer want to come, worried about Israeli soldiers from a nearby checkpoint who regularly patrol his house.

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