Al-Walaja, occupied West Bank – The illegal Israeli settlement of Har Gilo towers over the only remaining entrance to al-Walaja, a Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank.
Through the entrance on the southern edge of the village, away from the prison-like fences and barbed wire that surround the illegal Israeli settlement, rolling hills and fields of olive trees tell of the traditional lifestyle still led by the residents of this small agricultural community.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
Walaja is a quiet village, apart from the rumblings and bangings of the much larger Gilo settlement expanding on its eastern side – disruptions that are expected to intensify after Israel’s announcement to build 770 new settler units.
As parts of both the Har Gilo and Gilo settlements are built on Walaja’s land, residents believe that their further expansion solidifies the confiscation of land that previously belonged to the village, removing any hope that residents could one day get their land back.
For the past six years, Walaja resident Omar Halajay has been fighting for his right to keep the home and land passed down to him from his father. Halajay’s home, which lies on the eastern edge of the village, is the sole house on the edge of a mount overlooking the Gilo settlement.
“I have a front-row seat to the expansion,” Halajay told Al Jazeera as he sat outside on his large patio, with his chair facing directly towards Gilo.
Since 2013, Halajay’s home has been isolated by various Israeli barriers that have also cut off nearly a third of Walaja’s land. The Israeli government has tried to confiscate Halajay’s land and home on several occasions, but he took the orders to court and won the right to remain.
“I’ve been allowed to stay in my home, but that means an electric fence and settlement on one side, a wall on the other, a closed military zone behind us, and the only way to access my home is through a tunnel under a settler-only road,” Halajay said. “I’m not sure it is winning, but I still have my home and my family.”
Across from Halajay’s home, expansion of the Gilo settlement has already begun on the side of the mountain, creeping down to the edge of the valley that separates it from Walaja.
“When there are no settlements on a piece of land that has been taken, there is hope that we can get it back, but the second they start building on it, that’s it – we know it’s gone for good. Walaja will not get any of that land back once the new settlement homes are built on it,” he said, pointing towards the piles of gravel across the valley, which signal new construction.
When there are no settlements on a piece of land that has been taken, there is hope that we can get it back, but the second they start building on it, that's it - we know it's gone for good.
Gilo’s expansion has been heavily criticised by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations as a move by Israel that undermines the viability of negotiations towards a solution in the Israel/Palestine conflict – a position the Israeli Foreign Ministry has decried as “baseless”.
Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, told Al Jazeera that the Israeli government is too caught up in its own internal politics to consider the international community’s stance.
“The international community agrees that any additional settlement-building creates further obstacles in regards to the goal of two states,” Schenker said. “But what we have right now is the most right-wing government in Israeli history, and there is a struggle going on within the government with the right-wing parties kicking for the position of who is more right-wing, and who is more supportive of the settlements.”
Physically watching the settlement expansion day after day has had a negative psychological effect on his family, Halajay said – particularly on his three young children, who “can’t see anything good in their future” as long as the occupation continues.
“What are my children supposed to think? That there will be peace?” Halajay asked. “How is that so, when they are watching with their own eyes Israel continue to take more and more of Palestine’s land, of their village’s land?”
Down the hill from Halajay’s house, through a tunnel built specifically for his family to access the rest of the village under a settler-only road, residents in central Walaja do not have a direct view of the Gilo settlement, but they are reminded of the expansion by the noises that resonate through the valley.
“We hear the bangings of the settlement getting bigger and bigger all the time – even before the news of the expansion. They are always building there, but now it will be worse,” Mohammed, who did not provide a last name, told Al Jazeera from behind the counter of the small Walaja market where he works.
“It’s a war on the mind, hearing them building all the time and knowing that that is our land they are building on. We know now we will never get it back. Soon we will be completely surrounded by the wall and the settlements will be built right up on the edge of it,” he said. “And then all this space you see in al-Walaja will be gone … They will want more security for their bigger settlement, and it is the Palestinians that will deal will the checkpoints and stops. More settlements will for sure mean more violence against our community.”
Asked whether he believes that settlement expansion threatens a “two-state solution”, Mohammed just laughed.
“What solution? This two-state talk is for the politicians, it’s not for us. We know better than that,” he added. “We see it: Israel will keep building and taking land, they have no plans to allow Palestine statehood. If someone believes this two-state stuff after these new settlements, then they are either crazy, lying or they have never been here to see for themselves. But in Walaja we see it every day.”