Palestinian activists launch initiative to save homes at risk of demolition in al-Walaja

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Fifteen children in tattered clothing gathered, one on top of the other, on an old couch outside their family home in al-Walaja, a small village just outside Bethlehem city. The kids were between the ages of two and 10, laughing and playing among themselves, excited for the group of visitors that had just arrived. The adults came together to discuss “the problem,” while the kids seemed oblivious there was one.

All 15 children and a dozen other adults live together in the modestly built two-story home. There was another home in the yard nearby, but it was previously demolished by Israeli forces under the pretext of having not been granted a building permit before it was constructed.

Now the home all thirty family members have been forced to live in together has been issued a home demolition order as well. The family’s lawyer will represent them in court on August 9. If they lose the fight in court, all thirty family members will be homeless.

Atallah Abu Rizeq, 37, stood in front the home next to his pregnant wife and young daughter, discussing with local activists what kind of solidarity initiatives might help their situation. When asked what he and his extended family would do in the case that the court ruled against him he put his hand to his brow and shook his head.

One of the homes in al-Walaja demolished last year. (Photo: Sheren Khalel)

“We don’t have a plan if it comes to that,” he said. “All I know is we will not leave this land. We will live on top of the rubble until we can figure something out, but there is no way we will leave this land. It’s our land and it’s our home.”

There are currently 28 homes in al-Walaja with demolition orders issued, but local activists are working to find a way to help protect the homes under threat. In the last two years, at least ten homes in al-Walaja have been demolished.

Al-Walaja is hemmed by Israel’s separation wall in the seam zone (areas east of the Green Line and west of the separation barrier). There is only one road in or out of the village, and that entrance is shared by the illegal Israeli settlement of Gilo — the entrance of which has so many security apparatuses it looks more like a prison compound that a residential community.

Munther Amira, head of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee (PSCC) in the occupied West Bank, along with a group of other activists and community leaders went to visit the village this week in the hopes of coordinating a popular campaign against the many home demolition orders issued to families in the community.

“The people living in al-Walaja are almost all registered refugees. The original village of al-Walaja was located on a neighboring hill, there,” Amira said pointing off into the distance. “But in 1948 they were kicked off their land and resettled here.”

During the expulsion in 1948, al-Walaja residents lost three-quarters of their land.

“It is important to come up with a way to help these people before their homes and lives are destroyed,” Amira said.

Amira said he and other local leaders will be working to build a new initiative in al-Walaja to help fight the demolition orders.

“There used to be a lot of activism in al-Walaja, but then Israel started giving out work permits for people in Walaja to work in Israel, now they have job opportunities and something to lose, so activism is not what is used to be here, no one wants to make trouble because they hope to someday get a blue Israeli ID,” he said, explaining that people believe Israel wants to include al-Walaja in the East Jerusalem residency zone in order to confiscate more land. “But we are starting to meet now to create a campaign, and we will come up with a plan to try and help.”

Khader al-Araj speaks to a group of activists and journalists about the situation in al-Walaja. (Photo: Sheren Khalel)

Ahmed al-Atrash, 28, hopes to get married soon, but it is Palestinian tradition for the future husband to have a home ready for his new family before getting engaged. After working for years and saving money to start a family, al-Atrash began building a home on the roof of his parents home four weeks ago. Last week he was given a demolition order for the second floor he and his family were building.

“I want to get married and start my life,” al-Atrash said. “But what can I do without a home?”

Khader al-Araj, head of the Al Walaja village council, told Mondoweiss that local leaders are doing everything they can to help save the homes of people like al-Atrash.

“Families have become increasingly nervous about what will happen to them, especially since Israel renewed construction on the separation wall around three months ago” al-Araj said. “For now, we have decided on three priorities to focus on: Legal actions to fight the demolition orders in court, media outreach to spread the word about the struggles of the village, and popular demonstrations to protest Israel’s actions.”

The home Ahmed al-Atrash is in the middle of building in the hopes to get married soon. A demolition order was issued a week after construction began on the home, which is being built as a second floor of his parents home. (Photo: Sheren Khalel)

Al-Araj said he wants to send the message that al-Walaja is not a community that will go unnoticed.

“We are a small village yes, but if they think that means they can kick us out and empty Palestinians from this land in order to connect their settlements, then they are wrong,” he said. “We will fight this, we aren’t going anywhere.”

Under the Oslo II Accord, the occupied West Bank was split up into three zones. Area C comprises 63 percent of the West Bank and is under full Israeli control, while Area B, 20 percent of the West Bank, is under joint Israeli-Palestinian control, and Area A, 17 percent of the West Bank, is under full Palestinian control.

People wanting to install any single standing structure in Area C need permits, even for second floor additions on homes, tool sheds and water wells, but permits are nearly impossible to obtain. According to Israeli Civil Administration data gathered by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), between 2010 and 2014 Palestinians submitted 2,020 applications for building permits in Area C. Only 33 of those 2,020 – just 1.5 per cent – were approved. All permit requests are for construction on privately owned land.

With such a small rate of approval for permits, many Palestinians stopped bothering to go through the process of requesting one at all.

While it was easier to get building permits granted before the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right Likud party, Israeli authorities have been issuing home demolition orders to Palestinians for decades.

UN documentation shows that between 1988 and 2016, Israel issued 16,085 demolition orders and demolished 3,334 Palestinian owned structures in Area C. As of last year, there were 2,907 orders on hold in court proceedings, while the orders on 487 Palestinian-owned structures had been cleared and were awaiting demolitions.

So far in 2017, Israeli authorities have demolished 286 Palestinian owned structures, according to OCHA, displacing a total of 435 Palestinians, while in 2016 a record-breaking 1,093 Palestinian structures were demolished, displacing 1,601 Palestinians.

About Sheren Khalel

Sheren Khalel is a freelance multimedia journalist who works out of Israel, Palestine and Jordan. She focuses on human rights, women's issues and the Palestine/Israel conflict. Khalel formerly worked for Ma'an News Agency in Bethlehem, and is currently based in Ramallah and Jerusalem. You can follow her on Twitter at @Sherenk.

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