PITAPOLICY continues with this month’s theme: Socially Responsible Organizing and Investing. Sunday’s post covered the socially responsible organizing efforts in the US: “Is Lobbying Considered Socially Responsible Organizing?”
On a sidenote, our posting from August 5th, “Negotiating with Egypt’s Military Industrial Complex” discussed Egypt’s civilian government efforts to downsize the military. Serendipitously, President Morsi did just that on August 10th with respect to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ leader, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Midan Masr, a new Arabic & English monthly publication requested to reprint the piece by Mehrunisa Qayyum, so PITAPOLICY Consulting & Blog is very excited!
$1.28 Million Tunnel …for One Family
By: Asma Jaber
“Where was Israel sleeping the day that this man built this house and enjoyed this lovely view?” an Israeli Supreme Court judge asked her colleague. She was speaking about Omar Hajajeh’s house as she walked in between his olive trees (escorted by several guards), taking in his hillside view of Jerusalem –a mountainous landscape of olive and pine trees that will soon be tarnished from one side by a five-meter high electric fence surrounding his house. From the other side will be the barrier, separating Omar from his village of Al Walaja, which is just south of Jerusalem (half of Al Walaja lies within Israeli declared Jerusalem municipality) . Because Omar’s house lies on the edge of Al Walaja, it is now considered to be on the “Israeli” side of the West Bank Barrier, which will encircle the entire village within the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. The only way for him to reach his village will be through a $1.28 million tunnel that was built solely for his house.
Omar’s view of Jerusalem is not all that has been or will be tarnished. Omar’s three young children, all under the age of twelve, currently walk two kilometers to their school; the construction of the fence, barrier, and tunnel will force Omar to make a loop and drive his children through their private tunnel and then through Al Walaja and Beit Jala in order for his children’s school day to start – a trip of forty-five minutes. Furthermore, once all plans are implemented, Omar’s friends and family can only visit him from 6 AM until 6 PM. Under no circumstance is anyone allowed to spend the night.
Omar compares the situation to a prison with a fence, a barrier, and visiting hours. His punishment – a life sentence for him and his family. How exactly did these events transpire? A valid question for such an ongoing tragedy.
Negotiations between Omar’s lawyer and the Israeli Civil Administration began soon after 2008 when Israeli border patrols began throwing maps at Omar’s doorsteps, along with requisition orders to confiscate his land. The following year, an Israeli Supreme Court judge visited Omar’s house in order to see the land before determining whether it should be included within the barrier (see beginning of the article). The judge ordered an electric fence around the house with successive electronic gates that would open one door at a time, allowing for Omar’s passage into and out of Al Walaja.
When Omar challenged this ruling, he soon witnessed a diverse set of tactics to push him out of his house. One day four Jeeps, each with a body guard counterpart, pulled into Omar’s driveway. Three Israeli representatives, one each from the Department of Defense, Interior, and Finance, along with the Head Engineer of the West Bank barrier offered Omar four options to resolve his case: A government purchase of Omar’s house and land at a negotiated price; a land swap for land and a nicer house in Bethlehem “so that your friends won’t call you a traitor,” offered one representative; a business deal whereby Israelis would build hotels and businesses, and Omar would receive 40% of the earnings; finally, a business deal in which the government would rent out Omar’s land to him for 99 years. Omar refused all four options, even when one representative tried to tempt him by saying, “Think it over with your family. Take the money, and you’ll prosper. Your children will live well instead of the way they do now.”
In yet another tactic to push him out, a checkpoint crept up right outside of Omar’s house. While on his way home, the soldier at the checkpoint prevented him from entering his home under the claim that he is not a resident of Jerusalem. Whenever friends came to visit Omar, the Israeli solider would detain them as well. “Our house became like the Ka’aba (spiritual epicenter of Islam) for the Israeli officials” said Hakim, his eldest son of eleven years.
In 2011 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled against the electric gates for access to his land. It was not until months later, when construction workers arrived at Omar’s doorstep to drill near his house, that Omar discovered his fate. “What are you constructing?” Omar asked. The worker replied, “A tunnel. Just for you.” And so construction of the barrier and tunnel began and continues until today.
Unlike the bulldozers that the Israelis used to clear the ground for the section of the barrier farther way from Omar’s home, the Israelis exploded 1.5 tons of dynamite in the mountain to make way for the construction near his home. Omar’s wife was home alone and was instructed five minutes before the explosion to stay in her house. “I felt like the house moved up and down,” she said. Damages, including large cracks in the walls and ceilings, which resulted in flooding during the winter, will cost Omar $50,000 in repairs.
Omar has three open lawsuit cases against Israeli officials on the grounds of human rights and damages to his house. Once the building of the barrier, fence, and tunnel are complete, Omar’s thirty-six dunums of land will disappear into less than 1 dunum; his 118 olive trees will become four.
To answer the Israeli judge’s earlier question: Israel did not exist when Omar’s house was built. “I was here since before the ocean,” Omar responded in Hebrew to the Israeli Supreme Court Judge, who mistakenly assumed that he did not understand or speak Hebrew. Omar’s nine year-old son Anas continued his father’s thought when Israeli Channel 2 interviewed him. When asked what imparting thoughts he would like to share with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Anas responded, “We are going to stay here. Do whatever you would like. We are staying.”
Note: Asma Jaber is a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is currently completing an externship in Palestine.