11 Jul 2010
Palestinian villagers battle plans to wall them in

AL-WALAJAH, Palestinian Territories — Omar Hajaj says he will soon be caged "like a zoo animal," with an electric fence encircling his house and his village hemmed in by the notorious West Bank barrier.

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Selim Saheb Ettaba (AFP), Google News

Omar Hajaj holds his son's hand as he points towards Israeli earthmovers

Omar Hajaj holds his sons hand as he points towards Israeli earthmovers. Photo Credit: AFP

Omar Hajaj sits with his sons in the courtyard of their home in Walajah
Omar Hajaj sits with his sons in the courtyard of their home in Walajah
. Photo Credit: AFP

The rumble of bulldozers has become a common sound around this Palestinian village on Jerusalem's southern outskirts as earthmovers work on a huge trench which will be filled with towering slabs of concrete.

After years of interruptions, work finally got under way in April to lay the foundations for another stretch of Israel's "security fence" -- a section which will completely encircle this southern West Bank village.

At the moment, villagers have more or less open access to the nearby city of Bethlehem. But not for much longer.

"It is the only village in the West Bank that will be completely surrounded by the wall," says Willow Heske, of the Oxfam humanitarian group, which is helping villagers make their voices heard.

Since the 1967 Middle East War, half of Al-Walajah was annexed by Israel as part of municipal Jerusalem, while the other half remained in the West Bank.

The initial route would have sliced the village in two but following intervention by Israel's high court, it was changed to incorporate the rest of the village -- with one exception: the Hajaj family.

When the towering concrete wall is erected, it will cut directly through Hajaj's property, leaving half on the Al-Walajah side, and the rest -- including his house and nine acres of land -- on the Israeli side.

This would normally have given him free access to Jerusalem.

But last week, government officials told Hajaj his property would be hemmed in by an additional barrier -- a five-metre (16-feet) high electric fence.

His only way into the village will be via a gate in the concrete wall.

From his house, Hajaj can just make out Jerusalem's biblical zoo -- and fears his fate will soon be like that of the animals.

"Anyone one seeing my house closed off will think they are looking at a zoo with caged animals."

Oxfam's Heske said the electronic fence would also cut off Hajaj from his olive trees and a well which are also on the Israeli side. "He would have been the only person who was not going to be closed in by the wall, but now that is no longer the case."

For now, at least, there is little visible evidence of the construction, except for a deep trench which cuts off the village from the vineyards of the Cremisan Monastery whose Salesian monks are famed for their wine.

Villagers say one of the biggest concerns is how they will reach Bethlehem on which they depend for employment, health care, education and other services.

Ahmad Saleh Barghout, a white-haired farmer in his 60s, said he has filed a petition asking for access to his orchard, where his parents and grandmother are buried.

"It's the family graveyard," he explained. "We are Muslims but my brother married a Christian woman and this is the only place where they could be buried together."

Blue flags mark the planned route along which dozens of trees have been uprooted to make way for the wall, including olive trees.

Al-Walajah is home to one of the oldest olive tree in the world -- a knobbly giant that is considered to be around 7,000 years old.

Locals also fear that construction of the wall could spell the demise of the village. "All the young people are talking of leaving the village and going to Bethlehem so that they won't be trapped," said Saleh Helmi.

Helmi, who heads the village council, also rejected the argument that the barrier serves to protect Israelis from Palestinian attacks. "The stopping of suicide attacks is, above all, a Palestinian decision," he said.

"The proof? The wall still isn't finished and there are no more attacks."

Israel has completed 413 kilometres (256 miles) of the planned 709-kilometre (435-mile) barrier since construction began in 2002 following a wave of bombings. When it is completed, 85 percent of the barrier will have been built on occupied West Bank land.

Six years ago, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a non-binding ruling condemning the barrier but Israel has ignored the ruling and continued building.

Israel says the fence is essential to its security, but the Palestinians, reject it as a crude "land grab" whose purpose is to steal Palestinian land.

"Simply put, the wall is an integral part of a regime intent on heading in the direction of apartheid," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said in a statement marking six years since the ICJ ruling.