National Park On Al-Walajeh Lands Slated To Open For Visitors As Of March 23

16 March 2021
The Israeli Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) announced that it intends to open the site of the Ein Haniya spring for visitors on March 23, the day of Israel's national elections. The impact of the site's opening may be more far-reaching than the spring's conversion into an Israeli recreational area as it lies in the heart of 1,200 dunams of Palestinian agricultural lands (1,000 dunams belong to al-Walajeh and 200 dunams belong to Beit Jala) which Israel is in the process of turning into a national park (see more below). The designation of areas as national parks is a common practice of Israeli authorities to artificially create territorial contiguity between Israeli spaces, including the actualization of the "Greater Jerusalem" visionwhile fragmenting the Palestinian environs in and around Jerusalem.

The spring –adjacent to the Green Line along its Israeli side– has for centuries been one of al Walajeh's main sources of water and central to the communal life and heritage of the village. The surrounding 1,200 dunams of Palestinian agricultural land lie beyond the Green Line, within the area annexed by Israel in 1967, but on the Israeli side of the Separation Barrier, which blocks Palestinian farmers from directly accessing their lands. The current location of the checkpoint between Jerusalem and al Walajeh still enables Palestinian access to this area, albeit through a very long detour in order to bypass the barrier. Farmers continue to cultivate their olive terraces in the area despite ongoing incidents of arbitrary harassment from soldiers, the municipality and INPA inspectors.

In 2013, in tandem with the construction of the barrier on al Walajeh lands, the Jerusalem District Committee approved an outline plan which designated the 1200 dunams of land as the Nahal Refaim national park in complete disregard of private Palestinian land ownership and traditional Palestinian agriculture in the area.  

As a means of completely sealing off these lands from Palestinian access, including from village residents, the Jerusalem municipality began relocating the checkpoint between Jerusalem and al-Walajeh to a location closer to the village in February 2018. Construction on its relocation was suspended in March of the same year due to budgetary reasons and as a result, the Israeli authorities decided to keep the Ein Haniya site closed until the relocation is complete. Upon inquiry, however, Ir Amim was informed today that the plans for the checkpoint's relocation have been terminated, and that Palestinian access to the area will remain unobstructed "unless security forces decide otherwise."  

Keeping the area open to Palestinian access is a significant achievement, which in no small part is due to al-Walajeh farmers' perseverance despite the many obstacles and threats they continually face. In spite of this, the INPA's plans include a variety of projects aimed at transforming al Walajeh's agricultural terraces into an Israeli touristic and recreational destination, replete with hiking trails and outdoor activities, which creates the illusion of an entirely Israeli space. 
The national park extends to the Jerusalem municipal border in close proximity to the area where Israel intends to establish a new settlement on al Walajeh's lands (Har Gilo West) in the West Bank. In addition to creating contiguity between Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion settlement bloc around Bethlehem, the national park further isolates al Walajeh, turning it into an enclave detached from its Palestinian surroundings. In doing so, Israel advances its entrenchment of control along the southern perimeter, while undermining any prospect of a negotiated agreement in Jerusalem.  

Ir Amim will continue to monitor the situation closely in order to identify any limitations on Palestinian freedom of movement or harassment of farmers in the area.