Israel is turning an ancient Palestinian village into a national park for settlers
Gideon Levy and Alex Levac Oct 24, 2019 6:33 PM - Haaretz.com
The unbelievable story of a village outside Jerusalem: from its destruction in 1948 to the ticket issued last week by a parks ranger to a descendent of its refugees, who had the gall to harvest the fruits of his labor on his own land
Thus read the ticket issued last Wednesday, during the Sukkot holiday, by ranger Dayan Somekh of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority – Investigations Division, 3 Am Ve’olamo Street, Jerusalem, to farmer Nidal Abed Rabo, a resident of the Jerusalem-area village of Walaja, who had gone to harvest olives on his private land: “In accordance with Section 228 of the criminal code, to: Nidal Abed Rabo. Description of the facts constituting the offense: ‘picking, chopping and destroying an olive tree.’ Suspect’s response: ‘I just came to pick olives. I pick them and put them in a bucket.’ Fine prescribed by law: 730 shekels [$207].” And an accompanying document that reads: “I hereby confirm that I apprehended from Nidal Abed Rabo the following things: 1. A black bucket; 2. A burlap sack. Name of the apprehending officer: Dayan Somekh.”
Ostensibly, an amusing parody about the occupation. An inspector fines a person for harvesting the fruits of his own labor on his own private land and then fills out a report about confiscating a bucket, because order must be preserved, after all. But no one actually found this report amusing – not the inspector who apparently wrote it in utter seriousness, nor the farmer who must now pay the fine.
Indeed, the story of Walaja, where this absurdity took place, contains everything – except humor: the flight from and evacuation of the village in 1948; refugee-hood and the establishment of a new village adjacent to the original one; the bisection of the village between annexed Jerusalem and the occupied territories in 1967; the authorities’ refusal to issue blue Israeli IDs to residents, even though their homes are in Jerusalem; the demolition of many structures built without a permit in a locale that has no master construction plan; the appropriation of much of its land to build the Gilo neighborhood and the Har Gilo settlement; the construction of the separation barrier that turned the village into an enclave enclosed on all sides; the decision to turn villagers’ remaining lands into a national park for the benefit of Gilo’s residents and others in the area; and all the way to the ridiculous fine issued by Inspector Somekh.
This week, a number of villagers again snuck onto their lands to try to pick their olives, in what looks like it could be their final harvest. As it was a holiday, they hoped the Border Police and the parks authority inspectors would leave them alone. By next year, they probably won’t be able to reach their groves at all, as the checkpoint will have been moved even closer to their property.
Then there was also this incident, on Monday, the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah. Three adults, a teenager and a horse arrived at the neglected groves on the mountainside below their village of Walaja. They had to take a long and circuitous route; they say the horse walked 25 kilometers to reach the olive trees that are right under their noses, beneath their homes. A dense barbed-wire fence and the separation barrier stand between these people and their lands. When the national park is built here and the checkpoint is moved further south – so that only Jews will be able to dip undisturbed in Ein Hanya, as Nir Hasson reported (“Jerusalem reopens natural spring, but not to Palestinians,” Oct. 15) – it will mean the end of Walaja’s olive orchards, which are planted on terraced land.
The remaining 1,200 dunams (300 acres) belonging to the village, after most of its property was lost over the years, will also be disconnected from their owners, who probably won’t be able to access them again. An ancient Palestinian village, which numbered 100 registered households in 1596, in a spectacular part of the country, will continue its slow death, until it finally expires for good.
Steep slopes and a deep green valley lie between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, filled with oak and pine trees, along with largely abandoned olive groves. “New” Walaja overlooks this expanse from the south, the Gilo neighborhood from the northeast, and the Cremisan Monastery from the east. To the west is where the original village was situated, between the moshavim of Aminadav and Ora, both constructed after the villagers fled – frightened off by the massacre in nearby Deir Yassin and in fear of bombardment.
Aviv Tatarsky, a longtime political activist on behalf of Walaja and a researcher for the Ir Amim nonprofit organization, says the designated national park is supposed to ensure territorial contiguity between the Etzion Bloc and Jerusalem. “Since we are in the territory of Jerusalem, and building another settler neighborhood could cause a stir, they are building a national park, which will serve the same purpose,” he says. “The national park will Judaize the area once and for all. Gilo is five minutes away. If you live there, you will have a park right next door and feel like it’s yours.”
As Tatarsky describes the blows suffered by the village over the years, brothers Walid and Mohammed al-‘Araj stand on a ladder below in the valley, in the shade of the olive trees, engrossed in the harvest.
Walid, 52, and Mohammed, 58, both live in Walaja. Walid may be there legally, but his brother is there illegally, on land bequeathed to them by their uncle – thanks to yet another absurdity courtesy of the occupation. In 1995, Walid married a woman from Shoafat in East Jerusalem, and thus was able to obtain a blue Israeli ID card, so perhaps he is entitled to be on his land. His brother, who lives next door, however, is an illegal resident on his land: He has an orange ID, as a resident of the territories.
A sewage line that comes out of Beit Jala and is under the responsibility of Jerusalem’s Gihon water company overflows every winter and floods the men’s olive grove with industrial waste that has seriously damaged their crop. And that’s in addition, of course, to the fact that most of the family is unable to go work the land. The whole area looks quite derelict, overgrown with weeds and brambles that could easily catch fire. In previous years, the farmers would receive an entry permit allowing them to harvest the olives for a period of just a few days; this year, even that permit has not yet been forthcoming.
The olives are black and small; it’s been a bad year for them and for their owners.
“We come here like thieves to our own land,” says Mohammed, the older brother, explaining that three days beforehand, a Border Police jeep had showed up and chased them away. “I told him: It’s my land. They said okay and left. Then a few minutes later, another Border Police jeep came and the officer said: Today there’s a general closure because of the holiday. I told him: Okay, just let me take my equipment. I’m on my land. He said: Don’t take anything. I left. And today I came back.”
You’re not afraid? “No, I’m not afraid. I’m on my land. It’s registered in my name. I can’t be afraid on my land.”
Walid says that a month ago the Border Police arrived and told him he wasn’t allowed to drive on the road that leads to the grove, because it’s a “security road.” He was forced to turn around and go home, despite the fact that he has a blue ID and it is not a security road. Right next to it, there is a residential building where a Palestinian family still lives.
Some of Walaja’s residents gave up on their olive orchards long ago and no longer attempt to reach their lands. When the checkpoint is moved southward, in order to block access by Palestinians to the Ein Hanya spring, the situation will be even worse: The checkpoint will be closer to the orchards, meaning that the Palestinians won’t be permitted to visit them.
“This place will be a park for people to visit,” says Walid, up on his ladder. “That’s it; that will be the end of our land. But we won’t give up our land, no matter what.” Earlier this month, one local farmer was detained for several hours and 10 olive trees were uprooted, on the grounds that he was prohibited from being here.
Meanwhile, Walid and Mohammed are collecting their meager crop in a plastic bucket printed with a Hebrew ad for a paint company. The olives from this area, near Beit Jala, are highly prized; during a good year the oil made from them can fetch a price of 100 shekels per liter.
A few hundred meters to the east are a father, a son and a horse. Khaled al-‘Araj, 51, and his son, Abed, 19, a business student. They too are taking advantage of the Jewish holiday to sneak onto their land. They have another horse, an original Arabian named Fatma, but this horse is nameless. It stands in the shade of the olive tree, resting from the long trek here. If a Border Police force shows up, it could confiscate the horse, as has happened to them before.
Father and son are both Walaja residents, but do not have blue IDs. The father works in Jerusalem with a permit, but it does not allow him to access his land.
“On Sunday,” says Khaled, “I picked olives here with my son. A Border Police officer arrived and asked: What are you doing here? He took pictures of our IDs. He asked: Whose land is this? I said: Mine. Where are the papers? At home. I have papers from my grandfather’s time; everything is in order. But he said: No, go to DCO [the Israeli District Coordination Office] and get a permit. At first I didn’t know what he meant. I have a son and a horse and they’ll make problems for me. So I left.”
He continues: “We used to plow the land. Now look at the state it’s in. We have apricot and almond trees here, too. But I’m an illegal person on my own land. That is our situation. Today is the last day of your holiday, that’s why I came here. Maybe there won’t be any Border Police.”
“Kumi Ori, ki ba orekh,” says a makeshift monument in memory of Ori Ansbacher, a young woman murdered here in February by a man from Hebron. Qasem Abed Rabo, a brother of Nidal, who received the fine from the park ranger for harvesting his olives, asks activist Tatarsky if he can find out whether the house he owns is considered to be located in Jerusalem or in the territories. He still doesn’t know.
“Welcome to Nahal Refaim National Park,” says a sign next to the current Walaja checkpoint. Its successor is already being built but work on it was stopped for unknown reasons. If and when it is completed, Ein Hanya will become a spring for Jews only and the groves on the mountainside below the village of Walaja will be cut off from their owners for good. Making this year’s harvest Walaja’s last.