Residents in al-Walaja are well versed in Israeli planning law. The small village has been in legal battles against Israel’s separation wall, land confiscation and home demolitions for decades. This week Israeli authorities added another battle to the ongoing lists of obstacles faced by the rural village.
On Nov. 12, Israeli forces issued notices to Palestinians living in the area that the closest Israeli military checkpoint to the village, one of the two checkpoints between the Bethlehem district and Jerusalem, will be moved further into the West Bank, annexing more of al-Walaja land.
According to the notices, residents have 15 days to challenge the order.
Firas al-Atrash, a member of the Local Council of al-Walaja, told Mondoweiss that moving the checkpoint according to Israel’s plans would have devastating effects on the farming village.
“Moving the checkpoint means that the Israel will take over around 1200 dunams (296 acres) of the land village, and prevent landowners to from accessing their land located behind the wall, including the Ein Al-Haniya spring and archaeological site,” al-Atrash said.
The BADIL Research Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee rights released a statement on the announcement of the checkpoint move, emphasizing the significance of the Ein al-Haniya spring as “an important natural resource and source of water for the residents of the village of al-Walaja.”
BADIL also added that moving the checkpoint, a de facto land confiscation, is “an additional step towards the annexation of the West Bank by Israel.”
“Establishing this new fact on the ground would place all the lands located between the future and current location of the checkpoint under full Israeli control. Under international law, it is prohibited for the occupying power to assume sovereignty over occupied territory and to incorporate it into its own state,” BADIL said.
Al-Atrash said the villagers of al-Walaja have already started moving forward to challenge the plans in the court, adding that there are rumors that the land to be confiscated will be turned into a national park.
Several Israeli authorities were contacted for statements on the issue, but did not respond with comment.
According to Israeli rights group B’Tselem, the practice of establishing new national parks is often used by Israeli authorities to stop any future construction on land.
“No construction is allowed in national parks,” a B’Tselem report on the creation of national parks in Jerusalem states. “Therefore, declaring areas as national parks serves as a means of restricting construction and development of Palestinian neighborhoods.”
According to BADIL, confiscating Palestinian land in order to create a national park is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and a “grave breach” of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
“The seizure of property by the occupying power is only permissible under strict criteria: that the seizure is absolutely necessary for military operations,” the group said in a statement.
Al-Atrash stressed that the most recent notices given to people in al-Walaja is just one of many battles challenging by residents.
“Al-Walaja faces massive attacks from Israeli soldiers,” al-Atrash said. “Home demolitions notices, actual demolitions, no building permits, arrests, land confiscation, the separation wall — the village is always under attack.”
During the Nakba in 1948, al-Walaja residents lost three-quarters of their land to invading Israeli forces. Today, many of the descendents of people from al-Walaja live in refugee camps in Bethlehem, while those who live in the village of al-Walaja actually live on a neighboring hill. The hill is part of al-Walaja’s original land, but not where the majority of the pre-1948 village stood.
In addition, al-Walaja is hemmed in 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. Two other illegal Israeli settlements surround the village on the near horizon.