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Opinion Mr. Blinken, you can pick up the phone and save a Palestinian village from destruction

A Palestinian boy checks the damage in a house demolished by the Israeli military near the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Dec. 21. (Abed Al Hashlamoun/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Dear Secretary Blinken,

I’d like to thank you for calling my prime minister, Naftali Bennett, early this month and insisting that Israel freeze plans for a major new Jewish neighborhood at the northern tip of annexed East Jerusalem. The neighborhood — or settlement — would have driven another wedge between the Palestinian part of the city and the rest of the West Bank and made a two-state peace accord even harder to achieve. After your call, the Jerusalem District Planning Committee found an environmental reason to postpone considering the project for at least a year. It’s fair to guess that the real reason was your call.

As you know, in Jewish tradition the reward for one righteous deed is the chance to do another. And right now it’s essential that you phone the prime minister again and tell him to prevent government bulldozers from razing dozens of Palestinian homes in the village of Walajeh, at the other end of Jerusalem. For unless Israel’s Supreme Court decides in a hearing next Sunday to block the demolitions, U.S. intervention might be the only way left to prevent destruction of much of Walajeh, leaving residents homeless and dealing another blow to peace in Jerusalem.

Walajeh’s current crisis can be traced to a line drawn on a map in 1967. After Israel conquered the West Bank, it annexed East Jerusalem — and a swath of land on three sides of the city. The new city limits were drawn hastily. At first, it appears, no one in Jerusalem City Hall or the Israeli government noticed that the line sliced through a small farming village on the city’s southern edge, and that half of Walajeh was now officially inside Jerusalem and Israel.

Israeli planning authorities never created a master plan for the Jerusalem half of the village — a prerequisite for building permits. But residents had children and grandchildren. They needed roofs over their heads, and built homes on their land.

Fifteen years ago, residents created their own master plan, with the help of an Israeli architect and the Israeli nonprofit Bimkom (Planners for Planning Rights), and submitted it to Israeli authorities. They met bureaucratic delaying tactics that could fill a dismal work of history, the theme of which would be that in the eyes of the authorities, they either didn't exist or were intruders on their own land.

Meanwhile, in 2017 Israel’s parliament enacted a law that fast-tracked demolishing unlicensed buildings. According to residents, 1,300 people now live in that part of Jerusalem within city limits. Many have received demolition orders, or have already seen their houses bulldozed.

Last week I visited Walajeh with a staffer from Ir Amim, an Israeli nonprofit working to safeguard Palestinian rights in Jerusalem. We stopped at the unmarked city limit, dividing the annexed side of Walajeh from the side officially in the West Bank. Looking out over a valley, we could see the Israeli security fence that wraps partly around the village, and beyond it apartment towers of Jerusalem. On the Walajeh side, narrow roads wound down hills terraced to create farm land. Between the gray-green olive groves stood small square houses — and patches of rubble.

We stopped next to a pile of broken concrete and twisted iron bars — remains of two houses recently bulldozed by a government enforcement unit. A refrigerator stood next to the ruins, like a memorial for a family’s vanished presence.

Last year, ruling on a suit by Walajeh residents, the Israeli Supreme Court issued an injunction that froze 38 demolition orders against village houses and ordered the Jerusalem District Planning Committee to consider the plan submitted by the residents. In January 2021, all too predictably, the committee rejected it.

The text of the decision is Kafkaesque. It claims that village land inside Jerusalem has been designated as a park to preserve historic farming features. It says that houses built in the past 50 years must be razed. Residents, says the committee, can move into the side of the village that’s officially in the West Bank. Unstated is that doing so would result in them losing their status as residents of Israel — potentially turning them into illegal infiltrators if they farm those historic terraces.

Now the case returns to the Supreme Court. Walajeh residents want the court to keep its injunction against demolitions in place so that they can continue trying to legalize their homes. The planning committee wants the court order removed — allowing immediate bulldozing of 38 homes.

What’s happening in Walajeh, Secretary Blinken, is an extreme symptom of Israeli policy in East Jerusalem. Territorially, Israel united the city 54 years ago. Politically and socially, Jerusalem is divided.

Any solution for the city will take much time. But residents of Walajeh might run out of time in the next week. You could make a difference. Please pick up the phone again.