Palestinian Refugees & their Ancestral Homes-About as Nutty as It Gets: Omar Hajhajleh in Al Walaja

World Refugee Day 
20 June 

From my journal and letters, my dispatches from the field while I continue my photographic project about internally expelled Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza (once I can enter Gaza), plus their ancestral homelands. Here in Palestine-Israel thru July 10, 2019.

PHOTOS

A few stone houses still stand on the village site [original Al Walaja land]. Otherwise, the site is covered with stone rubble, and with almond trees that grow on the western terraces of the village and to the north. A spring in a valley west of the site still flows out of a stone-and-concrete structure. The 1948 Armistice line passed through the southern lands of the village. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) built refugee shelters and an elementary school on the land that became part of the West Bank. There is a white marker on the grave of one village woman; her first name, Fatima, is visible on it, but her last name is illegible. The village area is used as an Israeli picnic site; the Israeli Canada Park now lies north of it.

—Walid Khalidi, 2006 or earlier

To reach my rendezvous point with Meras in Aida refugee camp who had arranged today’s session [June 8, 2019] with Omar Hajhajleh in Al Walaja village (suggested by Nidal), I tried to grab a service taxi at the bus station in Bethlehem. Many others had the same desire. Some were families that I didn’t want to push ahead of. Some asked the driver where he was going and either jumped in or waited for a different taxi. I was perplexed and finally decided to walk. That is one hell of a walk—2 km or 1.2 miles—especially with my photo and audio equipment, up and down the Bethlehem slopes, grand view, but tiring. Returning I considered finding a service near the checkpoint which would probably be much easier, but then decided buying beer and bread took presence.

Walaja aerial SM

Yellow indicates Palestinian village and Blue Israeli settlement/colony

After picking up Meras’ friend, Nadeem, to help with the interview and audio recording, I would finally meet, interview, and photograph Omar Hajhajleh. Meras phoned, after several tries we finally reached him. At first, he told us he’d broken the key (I assumed metal, but learned electronic) and we’d not be able to visit; we might interview and photograph thru the gate. Then, surprising us, he opened the gate, releasing himself from his prison, sat on one of the two car seats, and began a much-practiced monologue about his condition, with questions later from me. We had a relaxed interview, helped partially by Meras and Nadeem (in the car, I’d talked earlier with Nadeem about how he can assist). All 4 of us marveled about the absurdity of Omar’s situation.

Meras photographed and filmed and promised to send me the photos after I’d sent him my email address (which I did; he hasn’t yet.). I could use photos of Omar’s house and fields, if we don’t return (or find them on the internet). I hope to discover a satellite image of the area, pinpointing his isolated house, what remains of Al Walaja, the expanding Har Gilo settlement, and the various fences and walls. (I forgot to photograph the electronic key—except at a distance when he left us.) Leaving us, he entered the tunnel beneath the fence and security road, as if he disappearing into a dark pit

His story from my notes (later to be checked against the audio recording):

  • Father was raised in the original village; he’s now dead, displaced during the Nakba.
  • Father built a new house where Omar has lived since the 1950s, born there?
  • Omar is a farmer with some 40 dunams of land, raises animals, gardens, has olive trees.
  • Once worked construction jobs in Israel but now because of his imprisonment no longer.
  • Israel covets his house and land. They will pay any price and offered him 4 options: sell it for a price he names, rent it out for a price he names, organize a partnership with Israel, and one other I’ve forgotten.
  • Has a wife and 3 sons, 10-16; how do they feel about their imprisoned lives and Omar’s resistance?
  • Sons attend school, meet the bus at the gate, but friends can’t visit and play.
  • Recently punished with 8 days of internal detention (house arrest) because he’d installed a buzzer outside the gate (he shows us) so his kids could beckon their mother after school—now ripped out by Israel.
  • He is much visited by the media.
  • Internationals and old people in the village help him with materials and I suppose farm labor.
  • Can’t be off the premises past 10 pm.
  • Someone always must be in the house to protect it; for, if unoccupied for more than about 60 hours, Israel considers it abandoned and will take possession.
  • Asked why he stays, I think he said because the land and house are mine; I own them; I have a right to live here (i.e., simple justice).
  • The larger context of his personal story is encroachment by the huge Har Gilo settlement and the separation wall. Plus the On Going Nakba, Israel’s conquest of everything for the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

Bethlehem map SM.jpg

  • NGO’s help minimally.
  • Friends painted Gaza mural outside the fence; it’s a new type of fence, tall with razor wire, not electronic.
  • Har Gilo and beautiful terraces lie on the other side of the fence—as does freedom and his family’s original home in the now-shrunken Al Walaja.
  • Maps are vital to explaining his story and the overall situation, Al Walaja and beyond, The On-Going Nakba
  • How might I visit the house; can I find it on maps?
  • He asked me to help him travel to the States (for visit, talks, residency?)
  • He tells his story calmly, without exaggeration, unlike many who’ve suffered greatly, and finally have an opportunity to speak their story, and then become so emotional the story’s power diminishes.
  • I felt bonded with him as I commiserated and felt some parallels (minor suffering on my part).
  • I recall visiting Al Walaja at least twice earlier, once with the Palestinian News Network (PNN) to cover a Catholic mass held to protest land confiscation, and another time for a demonstration, both apparently in 2013.

After the interview and portrait session, I asked Meras, how would you like to arrange payment for your help? He said 200 shekels for time and taxi, then when I fiddled with my purse, he said dump it all here (in his hand) for the driver. Which made a grand total of 250 shekels or $70 for about 3 hours work which includes maybe 1h our driving. Let’s say $25/hr which I suppose is reasonable. (I should compare with what I paid last year, suggested by Nidal, always a murky issue. Especially when Palestinians prefer to settle after the work rather than before.)

Now I wonder if we might return, especially to see the house, meet and photograph his family, and whether there are others in Al Walaja with different stories (to avoid repetition). I’d definitely love to find the original house in old Al Walaja, before Omar lived in this current house, and asked Meras about it. He’s not sure where the first house is, whether it still exists, or whether Omar could find it or be allowed to take us there (it is probably now in Israeli).

I’ve begun uploading my more politically sensitive photo sets to the Cloud, such as yesterday’s set from Al Walaja, Sheik Jarrah, Asem, and Jerusalem Day. I don’t expect Israel would block or confiscate these photos, but I prefer to allay my worries. With the speedy internet connection at Casa Nova [the pilgrim guest house in Bethlehem where I temporarily live], I can easily push these photos to the Cloud. In addition, I have them backed up on two external hard drives, one my complete laptop hard drive, the other only photos, audio, and journals. That one I plan to mail home.

Today: with Ayed to various camps, including Beit Jibreen and Dheisheh. Renewing my work and friendship with Ayed should be satisfying. He so wishes to travel with me to destroyed villages. And then on Monday with Fareed to various refugee camps, a full 3 days of work.

Thanks to Meras Al Azza who brought me to this section of Al Walaja and introduced me to Omar; to Nadeem Abu Rasme Fayz Arafat assisting me to interview, translate, and operate the audio recorder; and Nidal Al Azraq who lined up Meras to work with me.

About settlement expansion and corresponding shrinkage of Palestinian land:

Picture this (something I would like to actually do): a time-lapse aerial video of the West Bank since 1967 showing multiple settlement expansions, like mudslides. Roughly, it might be possible from Google Earth imagery which can provide a slider to show earlier views (under “view”).

(Quiz: where does Google Earth take you when you search for “Palestine”? Click here or try yourself to learn.)

 

I think this absurdity [the occupation and siege] is going to lead to a real awakening and people will eventually hang their heads and say, ‘What were we thinking?’ 

—Diane Buttu

LINKS

In photos: al-Walaja village faces “slow death” as Israel takes its land, by Anne Paq (2014)

Seven decades of struggle: how one Palestinian village’s story captures pain of ‘Nakba’ by Oliver Holmes in Jerusalem, and Pablo Gutiérrez (2018)

Welcome To al-Walaja

First Israel Locked This Palestinian Family Out of Its Home. Now It Locked the Gate Connecting Them to Their Village by Nir Hasson (May 2019)

Al-Walajah village explores theater as a form of resistance by Ben Rivers (2012)

7 thoughts on “Palestinian Refugees & their Ancestral Homes-About as Nutty as It Gets: Omar Hajhajleh in Al Walaja

  1. So grateful for your connections and stories and photos. How did google put Palestine there? Is this political?
    Blessings,
    Suzanne

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  2. mares, thanks for the observation and article. conditions may have improved marginally since the article was published about 7 months ago. last october i used google and apple maps extensively to locate destroyed arab villages in israel, but went between the west bank and israel a few times without too much trouble. the maps seemed reasonably accurate. no doubt, major platforms like facebook, google earth, and google maps discriminate against palestinians. we must pressure them to be more fair.

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    1. Peace and Joy on your journey to photograph the ancestral homes of the Palestinians and tell their stories.

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  3. mares, as you can guess, here in the occupied territories, peace is lacking, joy needs building, and justice is the key ingredient to be created. i would alter “tell their stories” to “expose their stories, with them doing most of the telling.” and not only thru words, but faces and gestures as well because my work here is primarily photographic. thanks for the nudge and ongoing support.

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  4. I did like the photos of the hands, feet, faces, etc. Your work is insightful, thank you for bearing witness to the telling of their stories and recording them. Yes, working for justice, the key “ingredient.”

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