The Pieces of Al-Walajah
Meet Mahmoud Rabah, a native Bethlehemite from the village of al-Walajah and freelance employee of the Bethlehem Mosaic Center as well as founder of Galassia, a company specializing in micro-mosaic jewellry. As a high school student, Mahmoud fell in love with mosaics because of their widespread cultural significance in the Arab world. They were first to him a way to understand his people’s history and culture, and eventually became a way for him to continue that history and express his culture.
Mahmoud graduated from University in 2015 having studied archaeology and art, and soon started working as an employee at the Mosaic Center in Bethlehem. Through his time recreating historical mosaics at the center, he developed his own unique passion to create jewelry with micro-mosaics. He taught himself how to work in this unique art form based on the skills he learned from the historic mosaics of the Mosaic Center.
Now meet Thikrayat Qarabsa: Mahmoud and Thikrayat first met in university. He was studying archaeology and she was studying art, but Mahmoud also received a minor in art, so they had a number of classes together. Mahmoud tells me, “She was the first person I spoke with about the micromosaic idea. She encouraged me to start. And a couple of years after we graduated we started working together and she was quickly better than me.”
Hear the al-Rabah’s family story: Mahmoud’s grandfather lived in what is now called “the old Walajah,” lost to the Nakba like so many Palestinian villages in 1948. Some families were totally expelled while others just lost much of their land. The majority of the town’s 30,000 were forced to flee to other towns and cities in Palestine, various refugee camps, and some as far as Jordan. Each of Mahmoud’s parents lived in Jordan for a period until they could return to what is called “the new Walajah” on less than half the valley the village used to straddle.
From the right vantage point one can still see the railroad Palestinians used until it was seized in 1967, and it became the village’s new border for the next several decades.
Until 2011, when the State of Israel built a road to be used only by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), right through the village, further restricting access to agricultural land and dividing the village.
As of June 2022, 54 of al-Walajah’s homes are facing demolition orders, 38 of which in a single high-profile court case. Most recently, the High Court of Israel ruled that the homeowners would have an additional six months (until November 2022) to work to gain approval from the Jerusalem Municipality for an urban plan that could be the basis for approving building permits and permanently lifting demolition orders. The process to approve an urban plan has already taken years and been subject to discriminatory regulations. By contrast, as of June 2022, the Israeli Civil Administration has advanced review of a new settlement plan of 940 dunams for “Har Gilo West” on al-Walaja lands.
Home demolitions and lack of building permits have been an issue in the village for decades. Mahmoud explained that this, along with lack of space in the village, is the biggest challenge to the village’s wellbeing.
Mahmoud remembers 2007 well, as a freshman in highschool. “I had breakfast and went to school like any other day. At the end of the day, I came back, and my home was gone.” Fortunately, his family was able to stay with various friends and relatives and rent different places, moving often. Eventually they received permission to rebuild their home, but still a smaller second home adjacent to their main home remains under demolition orders. Mahmoud keeps part of his workshop in this house so he can work when visiting family, as he and Thikrayat currently live in Bethlehem. He looks forward to living in his parents’ home once they are able to expand it.
But Mahmoud knows his situation could be worse in al-Walajah. His uncle, for example, lives in a home that can only be entered by military checkpoint and under direct military surveillance. Even his extended family members need permission to visit him, which is rarely granted. He also is not allowed to build on his land, leaving little room for his growing family.
As if a banal detail in the village’s story, Mahmoud tells me that often when a home is being demolished, its owners often serve coffee to the soldiers’ carrying out the demolition. It’s just politics, nothing personal.
- Thikrayat, Mahmoud, and a volunteer at the Bethlehem Mosaic Center standing in front of a recently completed mosaic as it is being installed at a new cultural center in downtown Bethlehem.
2. A view of al-Walajah from the perspective of “the new Walajah,” including the 2011 IDF road and “the old Walajah” in the distance.
3. The entrance to Mahmoud’s uncle’s home; entrance forbidden without express permission from the State of Israel.
4. A home in al-Walajah that was recently demolished on the basis of its construction without a permit.
5. Example of Galassia’s micro-mosaic jewelry
Kevin Vollrath serves as the Manager of Middle East Partnerships for Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). He previously served as the CMEP Ambassador Warren Clark Fellow (AWCF) and is completing his PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary.