Ahmed “Abu Nidal” Barghout introduces himself in eight generations: Ahmed son of Soale son of Shid son of Soale son of Amad son of Soale son of Amad son of Beru. That is how long his family has been living in the village of Walaje in Eastern Jerusalem. The 74-year-old father of seven says he has papers from the Ottoman empire establishing his family’s ownership of 52 dunams of land in the area.
Yet, none of that seems to matter to the Israeli government, which has been relentlessly demolishing the houses of the residents of Walaje for years, deeming those houses illegal. The Supreme Court gave the government until November to come up with an alternative plan, and the people of the village are on edge.
“It feels like the Israelis simply don’t want us here,” Abu Nidal said a few weeks ago. He was speaking to a group of us who had come on a tour of the area sponsored by the organizations Achoti (My Sister), Ir Amim (City of Nations), and Mizrach Shel Shalom (East of Peace).
The wall around Walaje
Walaje is a large tract of land stretching from an area just south of the Malcha neighborhood and Jerusalem Zoo, all the way across the Rephaim valley to where the Har Gilo settlement is located. Most of the houses of the 2000 families that lived there in 1948 were in the western section. During the war, the Palestinian residents of Walaje were caught in the crossfire, and moved to the other corner of their village, on the Jordanian side. Their new location sits on the opposite side of the valley, their agricultural lands where they grew olives, vegetables, wheat, and legumes. The agricultural tract that separates their original homes from their current homes is also where the Eyn Laban and Eyn Henya wadis flow, beautiful streams that once were the villagers’ primary source of water and today are popular Israeli leisure sites – but which have since been declared a national park and become inaccessible to residents of Walaje. Meanwhile, Israel destroyed the homes in the original Walaje in order to establish Moshav Aminadav on those lands, which today is home to some 1000 Jewish Israelis.
Following the 1967 war, when the formerly Jordanian East Jerusalem was “united” with Israeli West Jerusalem, some of Walaje was annexed as part of East Jerusalem. In theory, the residents of Walaje should have become fully equal citizens of Israel. But that is not exactly how history panned out. Although the residents of East Jerusalem no longer had the Jordanians to contend with and were no longer sitting on a bloodied battlefield border between two warring nations, most Palestinians from East Jerusalem also never quite became Israeli citizens. Instead, they received Permanent Resident status, which allows for certain privileges, such as voting in municipal elections (not general elections) and receiving work permits in Israel (which cost 2800 NIS per month to maintain), but which is just shy of actual citizenship. Moreover, when a permanent resident leaves the country even for a brief residential period such as for a fellowship or schooling, that status is lost and is very difficult to retrieve. Even people who were born in Israel can be denied permanent resident status if they leave – an indefensible policy that is currently being challenged in the courts.
During the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Abu Nidal worked as a contractor in western Jerusalem, and many of his children and then grandchildren worked in Israel as well. But with the Netanyahu government in the early aughts came a new hurdle: The Wall.
“The Israeli government built a barrier on three sides of the village,” explained our tour guide, Aviv Tatarsky of Ir Amim. “The wall not only separates villagers from Israel – it also separates them from their own agricultural lands.”
Abu Nidal reported that in building the wall, the IDF burned down dozens of his family’s olive trees. “There is no way for us to get to our lands,” he added.
The road to Walaje
As we drove up to Walaje from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Malcha, we passed through lands that were labeled differently – at least on the map, but not necessarily in real life. Walaje rests at a major crossroads, with West Jerusalem on one side, East Jerusalem on another, and the West Bank on another. As you drive on the narrow, winding road to enter the village, one side of the road is Area C, the other side is Area A, behind you is Har Gilo – that is considered West Jerusalem – and in the distance, you can make out Gush Etzion on one side and the Malha neighborhood on the other. A visceral reminder that Israel is tiny and complicated.
In theory, since Israel annexed most of East Jerusalem in 1967, residents of East Jerusalem are equal citizens of Israel – as opposed to the West Bank, which is under army rule, and which was divided into areas A, B, and C following the Oslo accords. East Jerusalem is under Israeli rule.
But the peculiar situation of Walaje, which is partly in Israel and partly in the West Bank, and which sits on some delicate seams between areas, tests what it means to be an Arab resident of East Jerusalem and paints a troubling picture of the Israeli underlying demographic agenda. Walaje has been cast as outside through facts on the ground established by many arms of the Israeli government, including the justice system, building and construction authorities, labor authorities, transport authorities, the IDF, and of course the Wall.
“What the law says and how they are applied are not the same,” says Aviv Tatarsky of Ir Amim. “You can call it neglect, you can call it discrimination, you can call it oppression. But there are significant differences and gaps between the lives and rights of people in East and West Jerusalem.”
For example, Arabs in East Jerusalem cannot travel into West Jerusalem or Israel as freely as Jewish Israelis. Arabs from East Jerusalem also do not have full citizenship but rather permanent resident status, which affords certain rights such as social security, health insurance, and municipal voting rights, but which does not include voting in national elections, and which is also conditional on residency. A resident of East Jerusalem who leaves for a period such as a residency or fellowship in Europe cannot return. Even people who were born in Jerusalem lose all rights as soon as they leave, even if it is to the West Bank or Jordan, and even for a short period. The Supreme Court has expressed criticism of this policy, and rumors swirl that the newest Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon wants to change it. But for now, this is how it is.
Area C is the only one of the “areas” in which Israel has any control. Areas A and B are controlled by the Palestinian Authority. However, Areas A and B, in which 90% of the Palestinians of the West Bank live, cover only 60% of the physical area – which means that the IDF is still controlling a lot of the space, even if theoretically not the people’s lives. This raises big questions about Israel’s responsibility vis a vis the lives of the Palestinians. Thus, for example, if the PA has not had elections in 15 years, does Israel have any responsibility in that situation? This question is at the root of huge debates and controversies. As I said, tiny and complicated.
We stood on that road between Walaje and Har Gilo, at a beautiful scenic viewpoint where lines on the complex map intersect. On the road, there are no visible lines of separation, just air and asphalt. “Anyone who wants to tell you where we are standing – like me – has to decide what to tell,” Aviv said. “I could say, look, we are in an area that touches the borders of Jerusalem, a two-minute drive from Bethlehem, where we can see all the villages surrounding Bethlehem like Walaje and Al-Khader, as well as the agricultural lands have belonged to Palestinian families for generations. And stuck in the middle of this area stands one small Jewish-Israeli settlement of 1,000 residents called Har Gilo that was the first settlement established after the 1967 war.”
But that narrative, Aviv says, is only one way to explain the location. “I can tell the story a whole different way. I can say that we are in the area belonging to the Gush Etzion Regional Council, where Jews have lived since before 1948, and the Palestinians kicked us out in the war. You can see the roofs of Efrat in the distance, and this is an area that is part of greater Jerusalem and will always be part of Israel. And there is one little Palestinian village stuck here, Walaje, in the midst of this Jewish area.”
“It is clear which narrative the Israeli government prefers,” he added.
We then drove into the part of Walaje, where the smooth paved roads ended, and where piles of rubble appeared on the sides of the narrow, bumpy inclines. We were now in the village that was part of Area C, surrounded on three sides by the wall, separating residents from Israel, from work opportunities, from smooth travel, and from their ancestral agricultural lands.
But the wall and destruction of their agriculture form only part of the villagers’ headache. They also have to contend with a perhaps even more painful reality: ongoing house demolitions.
“When my grandson got married,” Abu Nidal said, “I built him a house.” When Abu Nidal says “built,” he means that literally. He was a contractor for decades before retiring, and built the home that he currently lives in and many others for his family members as the family expanded. “But the IDF came and demolished my grandson’s house,” he said. “Twice.”
Stories about IDF house demolitions that make it into the Israeli media usually refer to demolitions of houses belonging to families of suspected terrorists. While that policy of house demolitions as punishment probably violates international law, Israel has been very resistant to heeding criticism, even when the pressure comes from the United States.
But that is not what the Walaje house demolitions are about. There have been no cases of Walaje residents involved in lethal terror attacks, and none of the demolitions are explained as part of an IDF fight against terror. Rather, they are demanded by a completely different corner of government bureaucracy: The Ministry of Construction and Housing.
In fact, according to the ministry, every single house in Walaje is labeled as illegal, and all may ultimately face demolition.
The reason these houses are slated for demolition is that in order to construct housing, residents need to follow zoning laws created by the municipality. Unfortunately, the Jerusalem Municipality has never bothered to create any zoning laws for East Jerusalem neighborhoods – ergo, all building is illegal. According to the municipality, the village is “empty land.”It’s as if the residents of Walaje simply do not exist.
This Kafkaesque situation has left many East Jerusalem residents with no choice but to build “illegally”, and then face the risk of having their houses demolished. There are currently demolition orders for at least 38 homes in Walaje. Between 2016 and 2021, around 25 illegal structures were demolished in the village, according to Ir Amim. The IDF has demolished or some 388 structures in the first half of 2022, not only in Walaje but also in places like Silwan, and Isawiya, as well as an asphalt road, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Some of the families were forced to demolish the homes themselves or face heavy fines.
The families of Walaje have been tormented by this for many years. In 2005, the residents created their own zoning plan in order to help legalize themselves and establish themselves as existing. They presented it to the regional committee, but the committee refused to discuss it. The matter ended up in courts, and in March, the Supreme Court came down with a ruling: 38 demolition orders in Walaje must be frozen, and the Jerusalem Municipality and the Ministry of Housing must come up with a zoning law by November.
While the residents of Walaje were cautiously hopeful that a solution is in sight, demolitions continued. In late August, for example, the IDF ordered the demolition of part of a home in Walaje.
But for Jewish Israelis…
Meanwhile, across the road, a few hundred meters from Walaje, sits Har Gilo, a lone Jewish settlement of 1000 people in the circle of Palestinian villages around Bethlehem, and the first Jewish settlement built in 1968. While Israel is working hard to demolish Palestinian homes, an announcement was made just last week that Har Gilo will be expanded by another 560 homes, doubling the size of the settlement. And significantly, it will be adjacent to Walaje on the one side of the village that does not currently have a barrier. In other words, the neighborhood would mean that Walaje is closed in on all sides.
It is, indeed, clear what the Israeli agenda is – and why Abu Nidal feels so strongly that Palestinians are simply not wanted. Literally being forced to disappear – to disappear on paper, and in real life, behind tall, concrete walls.
Perhaps the Supreme Court will use its power in November to force change. The people of Walaje are waiting anxiously for Israel to notice that they are here.