Summary: a small step forward in an otherwise bleak landscape may save a unique Palestinian farming community inside Jerusalem from being ethnically cleansed.
Arab Digest has learned that the Palestinian village of Al Walaja has just overcome one hurdle in its long battle to avoid demolition of homes and clearance of families from a part of the community that falls within the jurisdiction of Jerusalem municipality. On Tuesday the community, supported by the Israeli activist organisation Ir Amim (Hebrew for a City of Nations) filed an outline plan. Up until then the Israeli authorities were refusing to even accept the plan while pushing to carry on with the destruction of homes and the driving out of families.
Al Walaja, home to 3000 people, has been described as the last remaining place in Jerusalem that preserves traditional terraced Palestinian agriculture, with irrigation by spring water and cultivation by hand and with mules. Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher with Ir Amim, has worked for more than a decade on the struggle to save the community. He describes the village as “a staggeringly beautiful place and what’s most noticeable are the agricultural terraces.”
In an Arab Digest podcast last year “A Palestinian village in Israel that you’ve probably never heard of” Tatarsky delineated the policy by which the state of Israel strives to drive Palestinians out of their communities in Jerusalem:
The issue of discrimination and planning is something very central to the occupation in East Jerusalem. That is because Israel calls itself a Jewish and democratic state and Jerusalem being the capital, then, of course it must have a Jewish character. For Israeli policymakers, for the Israeli government, one of the central things is that there needs to be a very big Jewish majority in Jerusalem. Now with the 1967 annexation, Israel chose to annex areas and Palestinian population to Jerusalem. Today, Palestinians make up nearly 40% of the population of Jerusalem. So this is very much at odds with the vision of the state of Israel as to what Jerusalem should look like. This was seen as an issue as early as 1967. And Israel decided to control Palestinian demographics or at least to try and control them in Jerusalem through planning and building policy, meaning either don’t make an outline plan or make outline plans that allow for limited scope of construction. So the problem of having great difficulties in securing building permits and therefore being forced to either leave Jerusalem, which is the (intent) of this policy, or stay in Jerusalem and build without a permit is something that many East Jerusalemites face.
For the residents of Al Walaja the Israeli strategy works like this:
Being under Israeli law means all kinds of things. It means that the Israeli planning and building law is enforced. There’s nothing special about the law in itself: you want to build a home, you need to get a building permit. And the building permit is contingent on having an outline plan for the area where you want to build. Only thing is Israel never made an outline plan for the Jerusalem part of Walaja. So it means that since 1967, Walaja residents in Jerusalem have no ability to receive building permits, they don’t have any ability to build according to the Israeli law. The people don’t have a choice but to build and all the construction for the last 54 years is considered by Israel as illegal. This is despite the fact that the community itself said okay, Israel is not doing it. So we will try and do it. They initiated an outline plan. But Israeli authorities refused to approve it.
Now at least the authorities have agreed to consider the plan but Tatarsky says that the road ahead remains long and difficult and the outcome uncertain at best. The plan is sitting now with the Interior Ministry where he expects “a hassle for all sorts of further documentation.” Once that is settled the planning proposal goes to two committees. The first is the Jerusalem Municipality Council which is controlled by ultra orthodox and right wing councillors who will undoubtedly be hostile. However the council can only make recommendations which are not binding. It then goes on to the District Committee which has representatives from several ministries sitting on it. The plan can either be advanced or rejected and Tatarsky is hoping that concerns over adverse publicity in the court of world opinion such as that which has surrounded another threatened East Jerusalem community, Sheikh Jarrah, may cause the committee not to reject the plan out of hand.
When asked if Ir Amim had friends on the District Committee, Tatarsky replied “yes but they are in the minority,” adding that “the odds (of approval) are less than 50% but better than they were two years ago.”
Meanwhile the threat of demolitions still hangs over the village of Al Walaja despite a Supreme Court decision on 31 March 2022 that froze the demolition of 38 houses. Prior to the decision 30 houses had already been destroyed. And following it more demolition orders were issued with currently six homes falling outside the court ruling, Tatarsky told Arab Digest. Ominously the destruction of the homes is carried out by a unit that falls within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Finance.
The minister, Bezalel Smotrich, is an anti-Arab extremist who has said he is happy to be described as a Fascist and a homophobe. His recent comments in support of a settler mob that attacked the Palestinian community of Huwara, in what a senior IDF officer called a pogrom, deservedly drew international condemnation. “Huwara,” the minister said, “needs to be wiped out and the state of Israel should do it.” It was a remark that evoked in many minds inside and outside Israel memories of Nazi atrocities.
With the battle ahead still long and difficult, and the threat of more demolitions looming Tatarsky reflects on the quiet determination of the people of Al Walaja to protect their homes, their livelihoods and their unique agricultural heritage. “The people have a lot of knowledge and there’s a whole culture of life around it. Their perseverance is something amazing.”