- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 13, 2010

WALAJEH, West Bank | Israel has started construction on a new section of its West Bank separation barrier that Palestinian residents say could sound a death knell for their hamlet.

The barrier, running much of the length of the West Bank, already has disrupted lives in many Palestinian towns and villages in its path. But it threatens to outright smother Walajeh: The community of about 2,000 on the southwestern edge of Jerusalem is to be completely encircled by a fence cutting it off from most of its open land, according to an Israeli Defense Ministry map.

Walajeh old-timers are determined to stay, but doubt their children will feel the same way.

“We will cling to the village by our teeth,” said Adel Atrash, a village council member. “But we don’t know how the next generation will look at things. Maybe they won’t be able to live with all the difficulties and decide to leave.”

Israel began building the barrier in 2002, saying it would be a temporary bulwark against Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen who have killed hundreds of Israelis. However, the barrier’s zigzag through the West Bank brought allegations that Israel is unilaterally drawing a border and grabbing land by scooping up dozens of Jewish settlements.

Six years ago, the International Court of Justice said in a nonbinding ruling that the barrier’s path through occupied territory violates international law and that Israel should tear down what it has built.

Israel rejected the decision, saying the barrier is crucial for keeping Israelis safe, and denies it is drawing a border.

“In future negotiations [on Palestinian statehood], the route of the security barrier will not constitute a political factor,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.

Construction of the barrier continues as Israel and the Palestinians hold indirect negotiations that the U.S. hopes eventually will lead to face-to-face talks on a peace treaty establishing a Palestinian state. But the Palestinians have refused direct negotiations without a complete freeze on settlement building.

Today, the barrier, almost two-thirds complete, runs for more than 250 miles through the West Bank and East Jerusalem, war-captured territories claimed by the Palestinians for a state. Once finished, the barrier would put 9.4 percent of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, on the Israeli side, along with 85 percent of a half-million Israeli settlers, according to a U.N. report.

The barrier — walls of cement slabs in urban areas and wire fences in the countryside — has made it harder for tens of thousands of Palestinians to reach farmland, schools and medical care.

Those who live in the “seam zone” — between Israel and the barrier — or have farmland there need special permits they can’t always obtain and cross through gates that aren’t always open, according to the U.N. report, issued on the sixth anniversary of the world court ruling.

Walajeh’s fate appears to be sealed because it is virtually surrounded by Israeli settlements.

The barrier will make a large dip into the West Bank to keep the settlements, including Har Gilo and the Gush Etzion bloc, on the “Israeli” side. Within that pocket, an extra loop of barrier is to surround Walajeh on three sides, with a fenced settler road to Har Gilo closing off the fourth side, according to the Defense Ministry map of the projected route.

Moreover, the loop runs tightly around Walajeh’s built-up area, penning it within less than a square mile and isolating it from almost all its farmlands. Of 36 Palestinian villages that are or will be caught in the “seam zone,” none is as closely encircled as Walajeh, said Ray Dolphin, a U.N. barrier analyst in Jerusalem.

Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror said Friday that he could not comment on the details of construction around Walajeh, but noted that the route withstood a challenge in an Israeli court four years ago.

The Israeli military would not comment on how villagers are to get in and out of their enclave. Israel has suggested an access road with a checkpoint, Mr. Atrash said, as well as gates so farmers could reach their lands. Residents are skeptical, considering the difficulties farmers elsewhere have had.

In recent weeks, bulldozers began leveling land and uprooting trees near Walajeh in the run-up to construction.

Ahmed Barghouti, 63, who lives close to the fence’s path, said he lost 88 olive trees last month and now fears for a nearby family burial plot. The village’s attorney, Ghiath Nasser, says he won a temporary order to stop work on that section until Israel’s Supreme Court decides what should be done with the graves of Mr. Barghouti’s parents and grandmother.

The house of a neighbor, Omar Hajajla, lies just outside Walajeh’s barrier loop. Mr. Hajajla said Israeli officials last week informed him that his home would be surrounded by its own electric fence.

“This is like putting my entire family in jail,” the father of three boys said. “My children need to cross four gates to go to school. We don’t know how it will work out, but I’m sure it will be hell for my entire family.”

The barrier is just the latest blow for Walajeh, which has lost most of its land to Israel in decades of conflict.

Israeli forces took control of the village in the 1948 Mideast War, and residents fled. Some resettled on parts of its lands that ended up in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank.

After 1967, Israel expanded East Jerusalem’s boundaries and absorbed half of Walajeh. But residents were still classified as West Bankers, not Jerusalemites, limiting their rights and freedom of movement.

Since then, Walajeh has lost more acres to expanding settlements and roads, said Matteo Benatti, a U.N. official. From its pre-1948 size of 4,400 acres, Walajeh now has about 1,100 acres, nearly half of which will be cut off by the barrier if built as projected, he said.

Plans have been floated to build more homes for Israeli settlers in the area. In November, Israel’s government gave preliminary approval to expand the nearby East Jerusalem’s Gilo settlement. Private developers propose building apartments for Israelis on the lands surrounding Walajeh and have been lobbying to include the village on the Israeli side of the barrier, so far to no avail. Mr. Dror, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said he did not think the developers would get their plan approved.

Also, more than two dozen houses in Walajeh have been demolished over the years and 41 out of about 200 remaining homes face Israeli demolition orders on grounds that they were built without permits, said Meir Margalit, a Jerusalem City Council member. Mr. Margalit, who supports the village, said permits are impossible to obtain.

Walajeh faces an uphill battle for survival, said Mr. Margalit. “In any scenario, my feeling is that Walajeh will disappear.”