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Refa’im Stream National Park

Israel proudly presents: Old Bogus National Park

The village of al-Walajah is located near the village of Beit Jala, on a mountain ridge overlooking Refa’im Stream to the north. Al-Walajah lay on the other side of the valley until 1949, near the current location of Ora and Aminadav, Israeli moshav communities, and had more than 1,800 hectares of land. Al-Walajah was handed over to Israel as part of the armistice signed with Jordan at the end of the 1948 War. A small group of residents moved east and established the “new” al-Walajah on about 600 hectares of village land that remained beyond the Green Line. After the occupation of the West Bank in 1967, about a third of the current village was annexed to Jerusalem’s municipal jurisdiction, but unlike residents of other annexed villages, al-Walajah residents did not receive Israeli residency status. About half of the village land was expropriated by Israel to build the Gilo settlement, inside Jerusalem’s municipal borders, or seized by military order for the establishment of the Har Gilo settlement.

Although natural population growth has resulted in expanded construction needs, the authorities have never made a master plan for the village. Moreover, the Jerusalem Municipality actually rejected a plan residents had worked on for several years, arguing that it included construction in an area that was to remain open space. Faced with no other choice, village residents built without permits. The municipality and the Civil Administration, the entities that prevent residents from building lawfully, are also the ones enforcing building laws in the village. Since 1982, authorities have issued about 100 stop-work and demolition orders for houses in al-Walajah, mostly in the part of the village located within Jerusalem’s jurisdiction. In addition, authorities have imposed fines totaling 1.5 million NIS [approx. USD 430,000]. Dozens of homes were in fact demolished by the Jerusalem Municipality and the Civil Administration.

Paved route of Separation Barrier encircles village of al-Walajah; below: the village’s agricultural terraces. Photo: Oren Ziv, Activestills, 13 April 2012
Paved route of Separation Barrier encircles village of al-Walajah; below: the village’s agricultural terraces. Photo: Oren Ziv, Activestills, 13 April 2012

North of al-Walajah’s homes, in an area where construction by residents is prohibited, work is underway on Refa’im Stream National Park. The park, with an area of about 570 hectares, spans Refa’im Stream (and the Green Line) in southern Jerusalem. It is expected to be incorporated into a planned metropolitan park that is to encircle the city. The plan for Refa’im Stream Park was approved by the Ministry of Interior District Planning Committee in July 2013. About half of Refa’im Stream Park was defined as a national park. One part of this national park, inside the Green Line, had already been declared as such, and 140 more hectares were then added for the park on West Bank land annexed to Jerusalem. This area consists of about 100 hectares that belong to al-Walajah, and the rest to the villages of Beit Jala and Battir. This area is in use by residents for terrace-farming of olive and other fruit trees, vegetables and grains, as well as for grazing livestock, which water at ‘Ein Haniah Spring in the northern section of the area. The park plan includes recreational and sports facilities, as well as hiking and cycling trails. An organic and traditional farming educational center is planned by ‘Ein Haniah Spring, with a parking lot and restaurant to be built nearby. The Jerusalem Municipality and the Jerusalem Development Authority have already begun laying the groundwork for the hiking and bicycle trails in the park.

The park is primarily meant to serve residents of Jerusalem. When the Ministry of Interior announced it had filed the plan for the park, it stated the park was to be “a recreational park for the benefit of the State of Israel and the residents of metropolitan Jerusalem”, and that it was also meant to protect “open spaces that support natural ecosystems, as well as those representative of the spirit of the area”. According to the proceedings of the district committee that approved the park plan, “the plan interfaces with Gilo Park and allows access on foot or by bicycle to residents of the neighborhoods adjacent to the park: Gilo, Malha, Gonenim, Beit Safafa, Sharafat, Giv’at Massu'a and Kiryat Menahem”. Although part of the park was located on al-Walajah lands, residents of the village are not mentioned among its future beneficiaries, and the park’s impact on village land and future development was not taken into consideration. A clarification that the park was declared “for the benefit of residents of metropolitan Jerusalem and the general public”, was made only in response to objections filed against the plan.

Objections filed by residents of the villages and their supporters and by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel prompted a comment in the plan’s explanatory notes, emphasizing that it was fundamentally designed to “protect landscape and agricultural heritage”. The phrase “encouraging traditional agriculture […] and protecting farming terraces” was added an objective of the plan in the section detailing the plan’s provisions and goals. According to Ze’ev HaCohen of the Nature and Parks Authority (NPA), the NPA would “encourage farmers to continue traditional farming practices and tend to their lands” and that the delineation of “grazing pastures will fixed in coordination with local shepherds”. However, the plan’s provisions limit farming in the area, and prevent it from evolving by prohibiting construction of agricultural structures, fencing off of cultivated plots and development of industrial agriculture. In addition, public access to the area puts cultivated plots at risk of damage.

‘Ein Haniah Spring on al-Walajah’s land will be cut off from village. Photo: Keren Manor, Activestills, 15 May 2014
‘Ein Haniah Spring on al-Walajah’s land will be cut off from village. Photo: Keren Manor, Activestills, 15 May 2014

Over the last 15 years, about ten people, including children, have been living in caves and shacks in four locations in the area designated for the park. The plan prohibits residential use of the park, thereby putting these people at risk of eviction, without offering them alternative housing options. In August 2014, the Jerusalem Municipality demolished a cave and open-sided shelter near al-Walajah, within the boundaries of the national park. They had served as home to ‘Abed al-Fatah ‘Abd-Rabo

The Separation Barrier presents an additional threat to al-Walajah residents’ access to their land. Its planned route in this area encloses the built-up part of the village from almost every angle, cutting residents off from most of their farmland, including their lands inside the national park. The route also cuts off the part of al-Walajah located inside Jerusalem’s jurisdiction from the rest of the city. So far, only the section of the barrier separating the village from the Har Gilo settlement has been completed. When the barrier is fully completed, al-Walajah residents will no longer have free access to their land and will not be able to cultivate it properly, use it for pasture or expanding the village, or even enjoy the park that was declared there.

Ostensibly, there is no connection between the planning of the national park and the construction of the Separation Barrier. The position taken by NPA representative in the meeting about the park was that “there is consensus that the [barrier] is what is harming the area and the residents”. However, in practice, the NPA participated in planning the route of the barrier, which was to have been dictated by security considerations. The NPA supported placing the barrier close to village homes, in order to leave the future park accessible to Israelis and protected from construction and harm. This position was submitted by the NPA to the High Court of Justice in a petition al-Walajah residents filed in December 2010 against the proposed route of the barrier. The petition suggested an alternative route, near the Green Line (Refa’im Stream). The court dismissed the petition in August 2011, accepting the military’s position that the route proposed by the villagers did not meet the security needs the barrier was meant to serve, partly because it was located 120 meters away from the railroad tracks, endangering train passengers. The ruling made no reference to the considerations raised by the NPA with respect to the national park. A few months later, the District Building and Planning Committee announced the deposition of the plan for the national park, with its southern edge bordering on the planned Separation Barrier.

During the court sessions on the petition, the state pledged to provide al-Walajah farmers access to the farmland inside the park, so that they may continue cultivating it after the barrier is completed. That said, past experience in other parts of the West Bank indicates that such arrangements usually allow only partial, if any, access to the farmland. In addition, these arrangements will not apply to all village residents, but only to farmers, and none will be able to use the land recreationally or enjoy the park declared on it, ostensibly “for the benefit of the general public”.

Access to farmland in al-Walajah suffered a double blow when the land was turned into a national park and cut off from residents by the Separation Barrier. This is a severe violation of landowners’ property rights and is detrimental to the village’s ability to develop and benefit from its resources. The park and the barrier interfere with the connection al-Walajah farmers have to their land and the farming terraces landscape they have nurtured for generations. This landscape, the fruits of their labor and of their ancestors’ before them, is one of the reasons the land was made a part of the national park, but the farmers themselves are to be excluded from it by the barrier. They will not be able to cultivate their land according to their needs and their livelihoods will be harmed. The integrated scheme to separate the village from its land and attract the Israeli public to the area through the national park will turn al-Walajah into a Palestinian enclave, surrounded by Israeli territories. It will create territorial contiguity between the Gilo and Har Gilo settlements, exacerbating the separation of Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem from Bethlehem.

Further reading:

Friends of al-Walajah: http://friendsofwalaja.wordpress.com/english/

Ir Amim, Jerusalem 2012: A Snapshot. Developments in East Jerusalem and Their political ramifications, June 2013.