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How one Palestinian spring became a leisure spot for Israelis only

The spring that once belonged to the Palestinian village of Walajeh is now off limits to its residents. As of last week, it is open to Israeli settlers alone.

By Aviv Tatarsky

Israelis swim in a spring belonging to the destroyed Palestinian village of Walajeh, near Jerusalem. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Israelis swim in a spring belonging to the destroyed Palestinian village of Walajeh, near Jerusalem. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Hundreds of Israelis arrived at Ein Haniya, a natural spring on the outskirts of Jerusalem and the Palestinian village of al-Walajeh, last Tuesday, one of the early days of the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The site is part of a national park, technically open to all, which Israel declared on Walajeh’s agricultural land.

Less than a mile away from Ein Haniya, however, idled an Israeli Border Police jeep, stationed to ensure that no Palestinians could approach the spring. At the height of the olive harvest season, Palestinians were completely shut out from the site — including the residents of Walajeh, to whom 1,200 dunam (297 acres) of the barred area belongs.

Border Police officers have arrested several Palestinian farmers in their own olive orchards over the past few weeks. The decision to operate Ein Haniya as a leisure area for Israelis is directly linked to the expulsion of Walajeh’s residents from their own lands and from the village’s own spring.

The Bible’s strongest stories, most famously “Naboth’s Vineyard” and “The Poor Man’s Lamb,” call out against the abuse of power, including dispossession by the strong. Still, dispossession is the reality in this land, certainly since 1948. Jerusalem itself, on both sides of the Green Line, sprawls across sites of dispossession. At Ein Haniya on Tuesday, I saw this phenomenon in real time: how, in under an hour, Israeli visitors entered the site and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, yet another piece of Palestinian land turned Israeli.

The separation barrier started encroaching on Walajeh in 2010, when Israel placed a fence along a route designed to expropriate the village’s land. Instead of being built along the Green Line, based on the 1949 armistice agreements, the fence stretches close to Walajeh’s residential areas, cutting them off from 1,200 dunams of pastures and olive groves — private land that belongs to the villagers. Ein Haniya is at the heart of this sequestered area, and is also a central part of Walajeh’s heritage.

As the barrier was being built, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Nature and Parks Authority advanced a plan that would eventually see Walajeh’s agricultural land declared a national park called Nahal Refaim. The planning documentation contains no mention of the Palestinians who own the land and who cultivate the olive terraces — the same terraces whose beauty is cited as the reason for declaring the land they’re on as a national park. Instead, the plan announces that the site “will be used for the benefit of Jerusalem residents.”

The throngs of Israelis at Ein Haniya on Tuesday did indeed benefit from the spring, utterly indifferent to the fact that they were enjoying themselves on stolen land. They were blind, too, to the prominent separation fence that was about 70 meters (230 feet) above them and, behind it, the residents of Walajeh who had been excluded from the site.

I watched a father hugging his baby son. I was unable to reconcile the gap between this expression of a most innocent love, and the fact that they were taking part in land theft, denial of the villagers’ livelihood, and cultural destruction.

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The national park was inaugurated at the start of 2018, a few months after the separation barrier between the spring and Walajeh was completed. Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin, along with the previous and current mayors of Jerusalem — Nir Barkat and Moshe Lion, respectively — attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony, along with several senior officials from the Nature and Parks Authority and the Israel Antiquities Authority. Yet the park remained closed off for almost two years following its inauguration.

The reason for the extended closure is that the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Walajeh leaves the spring and the grounds of the national park on its Palestinian side. Even though the separation barrier now blocks direct access from Walajeh homes to the olive terraces and the spring, Palestinian landowners can still get to the area by taking a detour around the barrier. The Israeli authorities are therefore unsatisfied with turning Walajeh’s land into “a natural site for the benefit of Israeli residents,” but rather want to completely deny Palestinian access to the area.

And it’s for this reason that the Jerusalem Municipality and the Nature and Parks Authority want to move the checkpoint from its current location toward the village. The army is not opposed to this change, although from its perspective, the checkpoint is doing its job as it is. Since the military is not willing to fund the checkpoint’s transfer, the move has been delayed nearly two years, Ein Haniya remains closed, and Walajeh’s residents are still able to farm their land.

Now, Israelis have been given access to the spring for three days during the Sukkot holiday. In the course of preventing any Palestinians from visiting Ein Haniya during that time, the Border Police have also stopped farmers from tending to their land. The Jerusalem Municipality anticipates that the Department of Transportation will shortly provide the millions of shekels needed to move the checkpoint, after which the residents of Walajeh will be completely barred from reaching their land.

A Palestinian boy watches a bulldozer clearing land for the Israeli separation wall surrounding the West Bank village of al-Walaja, September 5, 2011. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

A Palestinian boy watches a bulldozer clearing land for the Israeli separation barrier surrounding the West Bank village of al-Walaja, September 5, 2011. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

In the meantime, Border Police has arrested Palestinian farmers in recent weeks while working in their own groves, because they were on the ‘wrong’ side of the barrier. They were threatened and told not to return to their lands. One farmer has been arrested three times in the last month. Israeli forces also destroyed expensive farming equipment he owns, and uprooted eight olive trees that had been planted over 10 years ago.

None of this was of any interest to the Israeli visitors who were at Ein Haniya on Tuesday. As more and more people crowded around the water under the trees, I could envisage the next steps: people overflowing from the packed-out spring, spreading over more and more of the surrounding land. Over the next few years, Walajeh’s land will likely become Israeli picnic spots. The Jerusalem Municipality has already hired planners to develop bike paths, picnic stations, and even a large campsite.

Walajeh’s residents did not protest the takeover of Ein Haniya. This is understandable: they have been living under occupation for 52 years and as refugees since 1948, when their village was destroyed. They have tried repeatedly to engage in non-violent opposition to the separation fence, the demolition of their homes, and to advocate for their basic rights — all while absorbing violence that the state dishes out without batting an eyelid, year after year.

Aviv Tatarsky is a researcher for Ir Amim and a member of the Engaged Dharma Israel group. A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Caitlin W

      Looking at Google Maps, it appears that Ein Hanya is on the Israeli side of the Green Line. As such, any Israeli citizen – Jewish or non-Jewish – can visit this park, as well as any non-Israeli who is traveling within Israel (this can include a Palestinian resident of the West Bank who enters Israel through a checkpoint). There are restrictions of movement between Israel proper and certain areas of the West Bank, and this applies to both Israelis and Palestinians. For example, Israeli civilians are prohibited entirely from entering Ramallah, while most Palestinian residents of the West Bank, while not prohibited, must pass through security checkpoints when traveling across the Green Line, be it to Tel Aviv or this spring/park. Thus both groups suffer. Ultimately greater freedom of movement for both groups would be ideal, but certainly this spring is not wholesale closed off to Palestinians as the article suggests. I should also mention how Israel’s security barrier has dramatically halted terror attacks from perpetrators who enter Israel proper from the West Bank, and while its implementation has been imperfect, it is tangibly improving the security situation in Israel. Additionally, for those who desire a two-state solution, the security barrier largely traces the Green Line and further (literally) cements the borders of a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders. Further, if we are to view the Israel-West Bank border as an international boundary, then security checkpoints for those crossing it should be viewed as equally legitimate to international border checkpoints, which exist on every country’s borders. Last, it appears that area is an important Biblical historic site. As in the USA, Israel can designate privately-owned land as a national park through the principle of eminent domain if it sees the public interest in the land as superior to private ownership. For example, just last month, a court awarded ownership of the ‘Mile-Long Green’ a historic site in Connecticut where French soldiers camped during the Revolutionary War, to the local government, despite private landowner claims to it. A primary justification was that the local historical society desired the area to remain as it was in the revolutionary war, rather than become the site of new strip malls and fast food restaurants. The same principle of historical preservation would presumably apply to a Biblical site in Israel. The article does not discuss whether Israel provided payment to the previous landowners for the land, but Israel has a history of providing compensation for similar situations.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        It’s difficult to respond to this because every single sentence is nonsense. Consider: “As in the USA, Israel can designate privately-owned land as a national park through the principle of eminent domain if it sees the public interest in the land as superior to private ownership.”

        Yes, but here in the U.S. it’s very difficult to seize private land, there has to be an overwhelming safety or public interest issue, and the emphasis should be put on “overwhelming”; it happens, but it’s rare. In Israel privately owned Palestinian land is constantly seized for invented reasons – consider the “present absentee” laws.

        Consider: “There are restrictions of movement between Israel proper and certain areas of the West Bank, and this applies to both Israelis and Palestinians”. Yes, both the rich and the poor are prohibited from sleeping under bridges! The West Bank is fragmented into over a hundred small areas and travel between them is made intentionally difficult. And on and on….

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “Looking at Google Maps…”

        Caitlin, this entire case your are trying to make is debunked by the link to “Ein Haniya” in the very first sentence Aviv Tatarsky writes. I can take every single sentence of yours and find it debunked as either false or misleading in exactly the way the Israel authorities doing this would like people to be fooled. Your attempt at explaining away what is actually being done at Ein Haniyeh and to al-Walajeh looks like an exercise in playing dumb about the true intensions of Israel’s several actions. And that’s the most charitable interpretation I can give it.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        It is telling that Bruce Gould and I, independently of one another, used the same phrase, “every single sentence“ to refer to the character of this post. Enough said.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      An illuminating article from 2016 on the situation:

      https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-palestinians-tilled-their-land-so-well-israel-is-taking-it-from-them-1.5406549

      ” In the eyes of the residents of the small farming village, though, there’s a very clear connection: They see the barrier, a national park and appropriation of the Ein Haniya spring as a tourist attraction for Israelis as part of a larger plan to expel them from the area. “

      Reply to Comment
      • itshak Gordine

        This security fence was created to protect the Israeli population from Arab terrorists. Since its construction, fortunately, the number of victims of terrorism has fallen sharply. The life of citizens comes before any other consideration..

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          This is a false correlation. You know it and I know it. There are many, many gaps in this barrier, the Palestinians cross through those gaps all the time, and if they wanted to get violent attackers across they could do it any time. The decline in attacks is not attributable to fence except in the narnia-land of Israeli propaganda. The “security fence” is a land-grabbing device. As I’ve said to you before, when it comes to the occupation, nothing Israel and its propagandists say is honest.

          Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            What’s wrong with grabbing land that was taken from JORDAN when they tried to genocide us ?
            Ben will soon be getting angry at the Poles for grabbing East Prussia in 1945.

            The fact that the land still has JORDANIANS on it – practicing terrorism – just proves that Israel must hang on to it.

            The fact that the resident JORDANIANS now call themselves something else is mightly irrelevant !

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            The main thread of this response is not worth engaging but we will only note that the one far right extremist has assisted me in refuting the other far right extremist. Case closed.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Yes, Comrade Ben’s response is not worth replying to (He essentially does not have one). It is noteworthy that each Self-hating Commie’s talkback tends to contradict the others. Case closed.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Tobias Kriener

      Below is what I wrote to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

      To whom it may concern: When I came to Israel three years ago I immediately acquired an “Israel Pass” by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and have renewed it every year.
      I was however deeply disappointed and outraged to learn that the Israel Nature and Parks Authority is a collaborator in the stealing of the land of the village of Walaja in order to open a National Park on Walaja’s land preventing the rightful owners any access to their land (https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-jerusalem-opens-natural-spring-to-visitors-unless-they-re-palestinian-1.7991344; https://972mag.com/ein-haniya-walaja-israel-occupation/144019/;Â https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-is-turning-an-ancient-palestinian-village-into-a-national-park-for-settlers-1.8023605).
      Therefor I want to let you know that I will not renew my Israel Pass and after expiring of my present Israel Pass will refrain from visiting the sites that are administered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority until it changes its policy in order to safeguard that the rightful owners of Walaja’s land regain free access to their land and are enabled to work it and to reap the fruits of their work.
      With regards.
      Dr. Tobias Kriener, Nes Ammim

      Reply to Comment