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Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

Feature Story

The Custom-Made Single-Family Ghetto, Courtesy of the State

Snapshot

The Hajajla family home in the village of al-Walaja had been in the family’s hands since before Israel occupied the area in 1967, and it could not be easily removed. No amount of financial enticing would convince the owner, Omar Hajajla, to move from the home where he and his father and his grandfather were born. So the state caged them in, creating shocking living conditions for this family of five.

Omar Hajajla, 55, his wife, and their three sons live in what should be a pastoral setting, on a hill in their ancient, verdant terraced agricultural village of al-Walaja, which straddles the southwestern portion of the city of Jerusalem and is home to one of the world’s oldest olive trees. Omar was born here, as was his father and his grandfather, and they are part of a community of around 3,000 that is the last place in the area to preserve the traditional agricultural practices of Jerusalem.

For the state, however, the Hajajlas are in the way—right in the way of planned parks (for the sole benefit of the Jewish public, built on al-Walaja’s lands), Israeli-only highways to link Jewish West Bank settlements with Jerusalem, Separation Wall segments to contain, hide, and tuck away the picturesque agricultural Palestinian village out of sight and out of mind, and more.

Omar was born here, as was his father and his grandfather. 

A wide view of al-Walaja and its stunning surroundings in 2012, before the construction of the Separation Wall

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Worldvision

Omar Hajajla of al-Walaja, November 11, 2021

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Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

To fully understand the Hajajlas’ surreal predicament, some background context is required, situating them in the midst of their displaced and now near-ghettoized village of al-Walaja.

Al-Walaja: A Village Displaced, Sliced, and Diced

Today’s village of al-Walaja (meaning “the opening”) is located 8.5 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem, adjacent to the ‘Ayn Hanya spring, between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem.

Before 1948, the village was in a different location a few kilometers away, on the west side of Jerusalem on the side of a mountain. Its existence went back centuries, with documentary evidence of settlement and taxes dating back to at least the late 16th century.1 The Arab villagers owned 17,507 dunums of land as of 1944–45, of which 8,363 were cultivable. Agriculture was plentiful, aided by five groups of springs that flowed naturally nearby, creating wells that made it possible to raise some crops from rainfall only.2

On October 21, 1948, Haganah forces attacked al-Walaja at night and captured it, one of a string of villages captured in Operation Ha-Har to widen the corridor to Jerusalem.3 While this attack was initially repelled, much of the village, including the main built-up parts and 66 percent of its land,4 was later given to Israel as part of the armistice agreement of 1949.5 Its inhabitants were expelled, and many fled to caves on the remaining village lands that were on the Arab side of the armistice line. In 1950, Moshav Aminadav was established on the lands of al-Walaja by Yemeni Jews. In 1954, Israel destroyed what remained of the village to prevent the villagers’ return.6

With time, the inhabitants of al-Walaja, all refugees, gradually reestablished their village, which came to be referred to as “New al-Walaja” (al-Walaja al-Jadid), on the village lands that remained to them in the Jordanian-annexed West Bank.

In 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank (including Jerusalem), more than half of the land of “New al-Walaja” (13 percent of the original village) was incorporated into the Jerusalem municipality when Israel unilaterally expanded the city boundaries (see Where Is Jerusalem?).7 The villages call the area that now falls within the boundaries ‘Ayn Jawaizeh. Later, half of those lands were expropriated to build Jewish settlements.8 Today New al-Walaja is hemmed in by the Israeli settlements of Gilo (est. 1970) to the east, and Har Gilo (est. 1971) to the southeast. Both settlements are considered illegal under international law. 

Gilo, as well as Har Gilo settlement, which lies east of the village, were built on expropriated land or land that was requisitioned by the military, which was formerly half of the land of annexed al-Walaja.9

The Jerusalem municipality provides no services to the village, nor does any other Israeli agency.10

In the mid-1990s, the Oslo Accords designated 97.4 percent of the remainder of New al-Walaja lands (those outside the city) as Area C, meaning they fell under sole Israeli control.11 This gave Israel the ability to obstruct further construction by denying building permits12 and demolishing many homes and farming structures in that part of al-Walaja that were or did get built.13

The Jerusalem municipality provides no services to the village, nor does any other Israeli agency.

The “New Nakba”: The Separation Wall

When the Separation Wall was built in this area starting in 2013, it was routed right through the village, directly through the Hajajla family’s land, across their long driveway. The Separation Wall has isolated the village from all its neighboring communities, ghettoizing the residents and upending the village’s ancient dynamic relationship with the nearby cities, not to mention the sweeping agricultural land.

As of 2014, the Hajajla family home (which is at the eastern entrance to the village) was severed from the rest of the village—the sole home left on the Jerusalem (Israel) side of the wall14 (along with most of the remaining village farmland, 247 acres15). Partially completed in 2018, the wall runs west of the house and around the village, surrounding it on three sides.16

A close-up of the map of the area around the Palestinian village of al-Walaja. Settlements are shown in blue; Palestinian villages in green. The dotted back line is the Israeli-imposed boundary of the city of Jerusalem, with the municipality area showing in darker beige. The outlined thick white line is the route of the built-up portions of the Separation wall; the heavy dotted thick white line is the planned route for the wall to be completed in the near future.

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Jerusalem Story

As is clear from the map, once the wall is completed, the village will be completely surrounded, sealed off from Jerusalem with entrance and exit only via a single checkpoint that leads out to Beit Jala (southward toward Bethlehem, away from Jerusalem). No one will be allowed entry or exit without a special permit, further violating their basic rights to access labor, education, and health care, and more.

The wall also severs the village from the approximately 740 acres of their remaining land.17

Omar Hajajla has described the wall, parts of which are visible behind him, as “an even worse Nakba than that of 1948”18 for the disastrous consequences that it brought upon him and his family and the rest of the villagers. “It took what we had left of the land and put us inside a container, a small container, with the wall surrounding us 360 degrees. One entrance; if that checkpoint is closed, no one can enter or leave the village.”19

For years, the state tried to convince the Hajajlas to leave their home by offering them all manner of compensation, including large amounts of money, but they steadfastly refused. Efforts to compel the family to vacate the home did not stop there, however. According to Omar,

For years, the state tried to convince the Hajajlas to leave their home by offering them all manner of compensation, but they steadfastly refused.

When they build the wall here, they made strong explosions near the house. They said they did it to open up a road, so that the collapse of the house would look like it was demolished by accident . . . When they saw the house was cracked, but not collapsed, they came back in December, and made four holes on the ground, so the rainwater would flow into them, and pass under the tiling . . . they tried to put the house into very bad condition and in every possible way to make me leave.20

The Tunnel and the Metal Gate

In early 2013, left with no choice as the Hajajlas would not leave, the state proposed to install a tunnel passageway that was designed to allow the Hajajlas to access the rest of their village via an underground passageway, routed under the wall. Also planned was a chain-link fence, mounted with sensors, to be constructed literally around the Hajajlas’ home, preventing them from going anywhere or accessing the village lands.

The Hajajlas took their case to the Israeli Supreme Court, petitioning against this plan. On April 4, 2013, the Defense Ministry reached a settlement with the Hajajlas’ lawyer: Instead of the wire fence being installed around their home, it would be installed around the tunnel and the tunnel, in turn, would be blocked by a closed gray metal gate that only the Hajajlas are allowed to use under very strict and specific conditions.

Omar Hajajla holds the written compromise agreement made with the Israeli Supreme Court on April 4, 2013. It specifies that instead of the house being surrounded by a fence, a tunnel will be built under the wall, closed by a remote-control operated gate. The tunnel, in turn, will also enclosed by a fence. This is the sole way to access the house. Photographed on November 11, 2021.

Credit: 

Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

The state-installed, custom-built gated tunnel entrance to the Hajajla home is the only way the family can enter and leave their house and reach their village of al-Walaja, by crossing under the wall. Shown November 11, 2022.

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Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

The only way for the Hajajla family to leave their home, pass through the tunnel—250 meters long and 8 meters deep—and reach their village is through the tunnel’s gate, which is seen in the picture. The gate is locked and there is only one key (a remote control), given only to Omar. Because there is only one key, the family movements are highly constrained—it is impossible for more than one person or car to use the gate at once.21 The family lives in constant fear of having the sole key taken away by the authorities.

The sole remote control allotted to the family by the authorities to open the gate, shown on November 11, 2021.

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Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

The family lives in constant fear of having the sole key taken away by the authorities.

The cost of digging and installing the tunnel was about $1.1 million US dollars.22

Two cameras posted on the gate monitor all the family’s movements in and out of their home.

Visitors to the Hajajlas’ home are required to coordinate with the Israeli military District Coordination Office (DCO) 48 hours before their planned visit, declaring a purpose for each visit and the number of visitors. Approvals can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. No more than 10 visitors are allowed at a time, and they must arrive no later than 10 p.m. and leave by midnight. Visits not coordinated in advance can result in the army’s seizing the sole remote control, and the family losing their right to exit their property.

Transporting any construction materials through the passageway is absolutely forbidden, and any construction in the Hajajlas’ house or land is also prohibited.

Any breach of these conditions will result in the key’s being withdrawn from the family, and they will be subjected to security checks each time they cross the gate, which will only open three times a day at certain hours.23

Omar Hajajla describes the situation created by the wall as living “in a zoo, where you live in a cage, and have a passage in and out of the cage.”24 The wall imposed extreme changes on him and his family, severing them from their village, and their family ties, depriving him and his children of normal life, such as playing with the other village children, socializing, or having spontaneous visits. Omar shares that scheduling playdates for his children under such circumstances is onerous.

Omar Hajajla’s youngest son bikes in front of the closed gate on November 11, 2021, one of the few ways left to him to entertain himself.

Credit: 

Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

Omar Hajajla’s second son, Anas, 18, studies on the house’s balcony, with Gilo settlement visible behind him, on November 11, 2021.

Credit: 

Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

No Modifications Whatsoever Will Be Allowed

In 2018, frustrated with the limitations imposed on family movement by having only one remote, the Hajajlas creatively thought to install an electric bell on the gate. This way the gate could be opened by anyone remaining in the house and would not have to continually travel with the one person who was leaving, locking all who stayed home in the house.

When the border police discovered this in the spring of 2019, they brought Omar in for questioning. Accusing him of illegally vandalizing the gate, the police installed a new lock on the gate that could not be opened at all for a time. Only an appeal from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz convinced the police to remove this new lock.25

How the Gate and Tunnel Made Omar the Sole Town Schoolbus Driver

The gate closes the village access to a major road out of the village, which is the Cremisan Road. This also happens to be the shortest route to the school that village children attend, the Cremisan Salesian Nuns’ School in Beit Jala (itself surrounded on three sides by the Separation Wall). This being the case, Omar Hajajla has become the village school bus driver. He must use two cars for the route, one from the village through his tunnel and gate to the closed checkpoint that leads out of the village, and one on the other side of it. He explains how this goes in the video below.

Omar Hajajla with the two vans he uses for school buses to take the village children to the Cremisan Salesian Nuns’ School in Beit Jala. (There is no school allowed to be built in al-Walaja.)

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Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

Omar Hajajla speaks to Electronic Intifada in the fall of 2019 about his highly unusual gig as a school bus driver for the children of al-Walaja.

Credit: 

Electronic Intifada

Not the First Nor the Last Legal Battle

This was not the first time Omar Hajajla had to fight for his house in court, nor will it be the last. Recently, the court also compelled Omar to demolish his own simple sheep corral (the remains of which are shown here in the shadow of the two nearby Jewish settlements) as part of the conditions of the compromise agreement in return for keeping his home.

A view of Omar Hajajla’s former sheep corral, which the city forced him to demolish himself, shown on November 11, 2021. No permits for building of any kind are granted in al-Walaja.

Credit: 

Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

Omar Hajajla looks over his sheep, who graze now in the place where the demolished sheep corral used to stand. Omar now has to pen them in a warehouse inside the family home. November 11, 2021.

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Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

Omar Hajajla stands in the tunnel from the village’s side on November 11, 2021.

Credit: 

Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

Omar had no choice but to accept all these draconian conditions in order to be able to keep his house and to continue to live with his family in the home where he and his father and grandfather before him were born, and where he has lived and farmed all his life. This leaves him and his family entrapped between a wall and two settlements.

The family hung a sign on the gate: “Living behind this damned door and this spiteful wall is your brother and your son Omar Essa Hajajla.”26

Notes

1

Walid Khalidi, ed., All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992, repr. 2015), 322.

2

Khalidi, ed., All That Remains, 322–23.

3

Khalidi, ed., All That Remains, 323.

4

Mikko Joronen, “Negotiating Colonial Violence: Spaces of Precarisation in Palestine,” Antipode 51, no. 3 (2019): 6.

5

Khalidi, ed., All That Remains, 322–23; Joronen, “Negotiating Colonial Violence,” 7.

6

Joronen, “Negotiating Colonial Violence,” 7.

7

Joronen, “Negotiating Colonial Violence,” 7.

9

Separation Barrier Strangles Al Walajah,” B’Tselem, February 17, 2022 (updated April 5, 2022).

11

“New Israeli Targeting.”

12

Joronen, “Negotiating Colonial Violence,” 8.

13

Aviv Tatarsky, “East Jerusalem Hit by Wave of Demolitions,” +972 Magazine, May 5, 2017.

15

Tatarsky, “East Jerusalem Hit by Wave.” This land was subsequently incorporated into a new national park, the Emek Refaim National Park, which is solely for the enjoyment of Israelis. Residents of al-Walaja

16

B’Tselem interactive map.

18

Going to School under Israeli Occupation,” Electronic Intifada, September 5, 2019.

19

“Going to School.”

20

Omar Hajajla, speaking in an interview with Mikko Joronen, as quoted in Joronen, “Negotiating Colonial Violence,” 11.

21

Nir Hasson, “Living in a Prison, Though I Have the Key,” Haaretz, December 19, 2017.

22

“Separation Barrier.”

24

Palestinian Family Separated by Wall,” Al Arabiya, August 17, 2011.

25

Nir Hasson, “First Israel Locked This Palestinian Family Out of Its Home. Now It Locked the Gate Connecting Them to Their Village,” Haaretz, May 27, 2019; Hasson, “After Locking This Palestinian Out of His Home.”

26

Raja Abdulrahim, “In a Village Divided, Palestinians See Their Hold on Territory Eroding,” New York Times, April 10, 2022.

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