Bulldozers on the move – Ancient forest destroyed to ghettoize Al Walaja
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Bulldozers on the move – Ancient forest destroyed to ghettoize Al Walaja

***image2***On Wednesday 15th of August, workers and huge armor plated bulldozers showed up in the tiny village of Al Walaja, located a few kilometers away from the center of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. In the past Al Walaja has been heavily targeted by the Occupation’s house demolition campaign: more than seventeen homes and numerous shacks and stables have been destroyed since the beginning of the Occupation of 1967. This time, however, the bulldozers did not come to demolish another home. This time they came for the forest.

Huge pine trees, oaks and a jungle of bushes extending from the village center are the children’s natural playground, a place to relax for the villagers and a green lung for the area. Now, a vast part of this verdant paradise is gone. For the Occupation’s bulldozers and chainsaws it was just a matter of hours to turn it into a sandy stretch of desert. More than 300 trees have been uprooted and 2000 more are slated for destruction. The bulldozers moved up to 80 meters deep into the forest and created a broad stretch of razed area right in the backyards of the houses along the main street of the village. Here the Apartheid Wall will be snaking its way.

Either made of solid concrete elements up to twelve meters high or of a combination of electric fences, multiple layers barbed wire, a military road and trenches; the Wall will isolate Al Walaja completely from the outside world, depriving the inhabitants of the last of their farmlands.

The forest targeted by the Occupation is situated on land owned by the Catholic Cremisan monastery, well-known for its vinery and run by the Italian Salesian order. It was founded in 1883, and many of the trees uprooted in the last week predate the monastery itself. While villagers up to now have not been informed officially about the Apartheid Wall’s trajectory in the village, the monastery was invited to negotiate with the Occupation authorities and to choose on which side of the Wall the monastery should be situated in the future. The monastery seems to have made its choice: a new road will link it to the settler’s highway in the north, while the Apartheid Wall will cut its historical links with the Bethlehem area.

In opting to stay on the settler’s side of the Wall, Catholic officials are acquiescing in the confiscation of the last plots of agricultural land remaining for the village that otherwise would have been situated inside the walled-in enclave.

The only way out of the walled-in ghetto of Al Walaja will be a tunnel forcing Palestinians underground, allowing the Zionist colonies to expand on Palestinian soil. Under the Occupation’s plan, the settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo will merge in a pincer movement, strangling the village. By pushing people to leave, enforcing unbearable living conditions on their enclave, the remains of Al Walaja’s land could be easily sucked up by the mega-settlement bloc stretching out south on Occupied Palestinian Territory as far as the Etzion settlement. The Occupation thereby would create a continuous suburbia reaching from Jerusalem deep inside the Hebron district annexing all its western part.

In Al Walaja villagers gathered for the second time on Friday to protest against the recent wave of destruction. Some 80 villagers and around 50 international supporters gathered on the main street holding their prayers under the scrutiny of the Occupation forces positioned between them and the settlement’s fence. The protesters later moved on to the site of the destruction where speakers of the local committee against the Apartheid Wall and members of the village council expressed their deep sadness at the destruction of the forest all of them have grown up with. They demanded an answer from the monastery and the Catholic Church as to why they had agreed on the Wall’s path separating the monastery from the village.

“This wall is a life sentence for each and every one of us. Even our unborn children are condemned to live their life between prison walls,” one of the members of the popular committee pointed out. “But even if they continue to deal with us as if we were convicted criminals, we will not leave. We are going to stay in al Walaja!”

With the spirit of steadfastness the protesters then moved up the hill leaving barriers of stones and branches on the site of destruction to symbolically block the bulldozer’s path when they take up work on Sunday 19th of August. A number of protestors tried to make their way to the home of a Palestinian family isolated behind the settlement fence, confronting Occupation forces who tried to stop them.

The soldiers attempted to beat back the protestors, punching and pushing, but in the steep terrain, they themselves stumbled, falling into the Palestinians, lashing ot chaotically. In the melee, one of the female organizers of the protest was specifically targeted. A man who attempted to shield her was hit in the stomach and had to be carried away by another protester.

Tensions rose until the crowd all of a sudden broke out in clapping and chanting slogans: “No to the Wall, no to the destruction of our forest” and “Al Walaja will remain steadfast”.

There will be protests in Walaja every Friday on an ongoing basis, with villagers reaching out to people in Palestine and all over the world to stop the destruction of yet another piece of Palestinian land.