Thursday, March 03, 2011

West Bank: "Animals in a zoo have a bigger cage than one they're putting our family in" (UNRWA)

Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)

Al Walaja, West Bank

Construction has already begun, with a long slash of exposed hillside visible for miles around. For Omar Hajajeh and his family, the bare earth is a sign of their uncertain future.

Omar lives with his wife and three children in the village of Al Walaja, south of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank. Their house lies on the edge of the village, on the 'wrong' side of the planned route of the West Bank Barrier, which will encircle the entire village within the settlement bloc of Gush Etzion. Bulldozers have already flattened the land in front of the house to make way for the Barrier and a patrol road.

To connect Omar's home to the village, the Israeli authorities propose to surround the house with a four-metre-high electric fence, turning his home into an enclave within an enclave.

No access

"We'll be living in a space that is maximum 400 square metres," Omar says. "Animals in a zoo have a bigger cage than the one they're putting our family in."

They will have no direct access to the 18 dunums (18 km2) of land around their home, and it is not yet clear how they will access the Palestinian side of the Barrier. The most likely option will be a series of gates, remotely operated by the army: two to be installed between Omar's house and the Palestinian side of the Barrier, and two on the patrol road, to ensure Omar does not drive on it.

Unknown future

Omar says his main concern is that "the future is unknown. Who's going to open the gate? Will they open it on time for the children to go to school? Will the children be able to get out to visit relatives? How will it be?"

Once completed, the Barrier will block his children's route to school, turning their two-kilometre walk into a six-kilometre trip on a very steep road passing in front of an Israeli military base.

Since construction began last spring, the family has already been increasingly isolated. Omar says: "We used to receive lots friends and relatives here, but since the Barrier it's gone down by 90 per cent."

His two older children already worry about the future. "Last week it was my son's birthday, and he asked 'how will my friends come and visit me?'" Omar says. "I told him not to worry, that we'll do whatever it takes to get his friends in. This is your life, you have to get used to it, but it's not acceptable.

"The kids don't go out much; there is nowhere for them to go, or places to play. They just stay near the house."


Sadly, Omar's story is far from unique. In Mas-ha, in the northern West Bank, the Barrier has enclosed Munira Amer and her family in their own enclave for almost eight years.

The house lies mere metres from the Israeli settlement of Elqana. It is entirely surrounded by a fence, with a system of two gates giving them access to Mas-ha. The portion directly in front of the house is made up of tall slabs of concrete, blocking Munira's view of the village she calls home.

"For the first year, when the children returned from school, they were forced to wait for hours outside the fence until soldiers arrived to open it," Munira says. "My youngest was only three when the wall was built; he never wanted to come home from nursery. He used to squeeze under the fence and run away."

With visitors banned, and the family effectively trapped inside their home, the result on Munira, her husband and children was devastating. "The children didn't accept it. It is very difficult for them," Munira says. "They were very aggressive and depressed."

Israel's movement and access restrictions have decimated the West Bank economy, and like many refugees, Munira's husband Hani is unable to find work. The family's isolation has meant alternative sources of income, such as selling vegetables from their garden, are impossible. Hani built a chicken farm, which the Israeli authorities demolished.

"We stayed in the house to protect our land, and protect Palestinians," Hani says. "We don't want to repeat the story of the refugees and leave our home."


To date, just over 60 per cent of the planned 709km Barrier has been constructed. It has had a devastating economic, social and psychological effect on communities in the West Bank, and is one of the main triggers of further displacement for already vulnerable refugees.

In Al Walaja, residents face the threat of destroyed livelihoods, increased poverty and dependency on humanitarian aid. Despite all the obstacles, Omar is determined to stay in the home he and his grandfather built. "It's difficult for others to understand how I feel," Omar says. "This is my home, nothing will make me leave."