Israeli authorities plan to relocate a permanent Israeli military checkpoint between the occupied West Bank district of Bethlehem and Jerusalem a few kilometers further into Palestinian territory, a move which would deprive Palestinian residents access to hundreds of acres of private Palestinian land, Israeli media reported on Tuesday.
The Hebrew language version of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the decision to move the checkpoint, located at the village of al-Walaja, was demanded by Israel’s Ministry of Defense, adding that the move would cut off the village’s residents from several hundred acres of their privately owned land located in the outskirts of the village.
Rights groups have pointed out that the decision is part of a larger plan to deny Palestinians access to a natural spring in al-Walaja, known as Ein al-Haniya. The spring is near land that has been planned as a visitors’ center for an Israeli national park expected to consume large tracts of Palestinian land in al-Walaja.
The place has long been a popular site for Palestinians, especially residents in the Bethlehem area, and has maintained an important religious significance to Christians, as Christian monks frequent the site and bathe in the freshwater spring.
Local Palestinian shepherds also rely on the fresh spring to refresh their sheep while herding in the area.
According to Haaretz, arguments have been ongoing in Israel over the past few weeks over how far into Palestinian territory authorities should move the checkpoint, with some Israeli officials saying that the checkpoint should be set up directly before Ein al-Haniya and others arguing that it should be relocated even further into Palestinian territory.
The checkpoint is currently 1.5 kilometers after Ein al-Haniya. Israeli authorities will also resume construction of the separation wall around al-Walaja that includes a section which would isolate the privately held land of Ein al-Haniya, making the site inaccessible to local residents, according to Haaretz.
A spokesperson for both the Israeli army and Israel’s Ministry of Defense was not immediately available to comment on the decision.
Residents of al-Walaja have lost over three-quarters of their land since Israel was established in 1948, when most of the village’s residents became refugees. During Israel’s illegal occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967, 50 percent of al-Walaja’s lands were annexed to the Jerusalem municipality.
Israel’s separation wall will encircle al-Walaja upon completion, and swathes of land have been appropriated by the Israeli government for the construction and expansion of the illegal Israeli settlements of Gilo, Har Gilo, and Givat Yael, while Israel’s checkpoints and separation wall has left a single entrance to al-Walaja connecting it to the rest of the West Bank.
The village’s council head Abd al-Rahman Abu al-Teen said during a press briefing in May that “If and when the wall is completed, it will turn the village into a prison.”