WALAJA, West Bank — On a gray metal gate that Israel has built in the Palestinian village of Walaja, hangs a corrosive sign: “Life behind this damn door and this hateful wall is your brother and your son Omar Essa Hajajlah.”
The wall in question is part of the 440-mile barrier that Israel erected years ago as a security measure, largely separating its territory from the occupied West Bank. When it was built, it cut right through Mr. Hajajlah’s long driveway, which isolated him from his neighbors. The gate allows him and his family to cross from their home on one side of the wall to the rest of their village, although few are allowed to cross freely in the other direction.
Many of the great events that shaped this corner of the Middle East left their mark on Walaja – once a strip of terraced farmland home to an ancient olive tree. Today it serves as a striking example of how decades of war, diplomatic agreements, Israeli settlement building, laws and regulations have carved and wiped out the West Bank from territory under Palestinian control.
The 3,000 Palestinian residents of Walaja now live partly in the occupied West Bank and partly in Jerusalem, divided into different zones with different laws and regulations. Palestinian leaders and human rights groups say this kind of fragmentation undermines the possibility of ever building a Palestinian state on an adjacent tract of land.
“They want a land without people so they can take the land without war and without blood loss,” said 57-year-old Hajajlah of Israel, sitting on a broken chair on his patio overlooking a valley with grazing sheep behind him. “And they succeed in that.”
The decline and division of Walaja began during the 1948 war when the 1,600 villagers fled their land. This was part of what the Palestinians call the nakba or catastrophe, as hundreds of thousands fled or were displaced from their homes when Israel was founded.
They settled on a neighboring mountaintop that was part of Walaja’s farmlands and reestablished their village on the territory of neighboring Jordan.
In the 1967 war, Israel defeated several Arab states that mobilized against the country and Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula; the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan; and the Golan Heights from Syria.
Walaja was part of the conquered West Bank.
Israel then drew new municipal boundaries for Jerusalem, annexing some 17,000 acres of the city’s West Bank — land that is still considered occupied territory by most of the world. Jerusalem’s new municipal boundary cut through Walaja, placing part of the village in the West Bank, then under Israeli military law, and part in Jerusalem, where municipal laws and regulations applied.
According to the United Nations, in the post-1967 era, part of Walaja’s land was taken to build Israeli settlements. Most of the world views those settlements as a violation of international law, although Israel maintains that there has been a Jewish presence in the West Bank for thousands of years.
Then, in the 1990s, Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords, the first ever peace agreement between them, hailed at the time as a historic breakthrough.
Under the accords, the West Bank of Walaja was further divided into two zones: one came under Palestinian rule and the other remained under Israeli control. Those designations have since determined, among other things, which construction is allowed and who allows it.
The agreements that created these divisions were intended to be temporary, but took on a more permanent character when the Oslo negotiations collapsed after no lasting settlement was reached.
In 2002, following a wave of Palestinian attacks, Israel began building the separation wall – a system of fences and concrete walls along or, in places, within the West Bank. When the construction of the wall reached Walaja in 2012, it added a new division: isolating Mr. Hajajlah from the rest of the village.
“Walaja is representative of the fragmentation of Palestinian lands,” said Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, an architect and urban planner at Bimkom, an independent Israeli organization that campaigns for Palestinian land rights, which are severely restricted by Israel.
“The occupation and land grab are very advanced and they use all kinds of techniques,” he added. “And planning is a very powerful tool.”
Israeli officials have denied trying to evict Palestinians from the land, claiming that, on the contrary, in Jerusalem, the government has made it easier for them to get building permits.
“The security fence was built to meet security needs and prevent terrorism,” the defense ministry said in a statement, something Israel has hailed as a success in curbing attacks. “Even today this fence is of great importance,” it added.
“The wall in Walaja does not divide the village except for a single house that stands exactly where the fence was built,” the ministry said.
Two signs translated into English mark the entrance to Walaja: One in green reads: “Al Walajah Welcomes You.” The other, in red, says: “This road leads to a Palestinian village, the entrance for Israeli citizens is dangerous.”
The sectors of the village are easily distinguished by the housing units in each area, a reflection of the various laws that govern them.
In the portion of the West Bank under complete Israeli control, two- and three-story structures dominate the landscape. But in the Palestinian Authority-administered zone in the West Bank, a cluster of mid-level apartment buildings is emerging — allowing more Palestinians to move in.
And in the parts of Walaja that lie within Jerusalem’s borders, piles of rubble line the winding mountain roads, a testament to Israeli laws against bulldozing unlicensed homes — a policy that overwhelmingly affects Palestinians.
According to Ir Amim, a Jerusalem advocacy group, at least 32 houses have been demolished in Walaja since 2016.
Ibrahim Araj and 37 other homeowners in Walaja have taken their fight against house demolitions to Israel’s Supreme Court, a move that has prevented the destruction. A decision late last month extends the demolition ban on these 38 homes for another seven months and gives residents the chance to create a zoning plan that will allow them to apply for planning permission.
However, the case only protects those 38 houses.
“Walaja itself is like a microcosm of all the violations that Israel is committing,” said Mr Araj, a 37-year-old lawyer, whose house has been under demolition order since 2016. can hear the sound of construction of a nearby Israeli settlement on land that used to be part of Walaja.
The small part of the village managed by the Palestinian Authority is going through a mini construction boom.
Clearly visible even from a distance, a cluster of seven- and eight-storey apartment buildings juts out from the hillside grounds of modest single-family homes and the occasional villa.
From his desk at his real estate office, Sami Abu al-Teen, 52, can see the seven-story apartment building he recently built, named after one of his daughters.
“The authority has no control here. They don’t have police or anything,” said Mr. al-Teen. “But we can still go to them and get building permits.”
mr. Hajajlah said he felt that his family’s house, built over three generations, was an island unto itself. Two cameras watch as he, his wife and three sons come and go through a gate in the dividing wall.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said it was working to find a solution for the family and had built a direct passage to their home so they could cross without restrictions. However, when inviting guests, the family is obliged to notify the authorities, the ministry said.
Before the wall was erected, Mr. Hajajlah that large gatherings were held in his house, especially around holidays. But his family and friends refuse to come, concerned about Israeli soldiers from a nearby checkpoint regularly patrolling his home.
As he escorts some rare guests out through the metal gate, he passes painted flowers and pro-Palestinian graffiti on the dividing wall that reads, “Existence is resistance.”