Israel Defies Peace Plan With Land Grab on West Bank
Bethlehem Pullout Is a Cover for New Settlements:
Chris McGreal in Beit Eksa
Thursday July 3, 2003
The Israeli government has confiscated hundreds of acres of Palestinian land on the West Bank this week - for the purpose, Palestinians allege, of building settlements - in flagrant breach of commitments under the US-led road map to peace.
Yesterday, an Israeli official and soldiers were marking out swaths of olive groves and other ground outside the villages of Beit Eksa and Beit Souriq, north of Jerusalem.
"State land. Entry prohibited," read a sign erected on village land in the name of the civil administration of Judea and Samaria, the Israeli body that oversees military rule in the West Bank.
The Palestinians say the Israelis plan to build settlements to link two Jewish towns constructed on land seized from the Arab villages in the 1980s. The accusation would fit with existing Israeli plans for a "greater Jerusalem".
The new land seizure came on the day Israel handed over the West Bank city of Bethlehem to Palestinian police. Church bells pealed in celebration and Palestinian police patrolled the town with their sirens blaring.
One Palestinian cabinet minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said Mr Sharon was using the military's withdrawal from Bethlehem yesterday, and Gaza earlier in the week, as a cover for land seizures.
"It's robbery," said Mr Abed Rabbo. "What they are doing is trying to practise ethnic cleansing on the outskirts of Jerusalem. When they steal the land of villagers, they tell them they have no future with nothing to live on.
"The road map says they should stop the confiscation of land, they should stop the demolition of homes, but all the Israelis do is talk of the difficult decisions they have to make."
The first phase of the road map requires Israel to stop confiscating Palestinian property and to freeze all settlement activity. It also obliges Israel to stop demolishing Palestinian homes - but yesterday an Israeli official accompanied by soldiers was touring Beit Eksa and Beit Souriq, marking out the confiscated land and handing out demolition orders.
The soldiers arrived on Monday without warning. Although a seizure order was made, it was only displayed in the headquarters of the civil administration, and the residents of Beit Eksa and Beit Souriq say they knew nothing about it.
"They didn't tell us anything," said Fateh Hababa, a teacher and member of Beit Eksa's village council. "Some people went to speak to them. They told us we could pick our olives but we cannot plough our land or repair the terracing because it's not ours any more.
"All this started 20 years ago ... they have taken 4,000 acres of land over the years. We are being squeezed out. There were 20,000 people living here in 1967. Now there are 1,300."
The seizure was supervised by an Israeli official, Mikha Yaven. He declined to say which department he worked for or to discuss what he was doing. "This is nothing special. My work is enforcing the law. I can't talk," he said.
The Guardian sought an explanation for the land seizures from Talia Fomeh, a spokeswoman for General Amos Gilad, the military administrator of the West Bank.
"It's a bit sensitive," she said. "It's not something we want to respond to without knowing the complicated legal issues involved."
Ariel Sharon and others on the Israeli right have made no secret of their desire to expand Jerusalem deep into the West Bank by building new settlements and incorporating them into the city.
Large Jewish towns, such as Ma'ale Adumim several miles east of Jerusalem, are already administered as though part of the city.
Last month, the Israeli prime minister told his cabinet that settlements should go on expanding despite the road map, but quietly.
"There is a master plan, that doesn't have official status but is widely accepted, to create a Jerusalem metropolis using settlements and roads - a Jewish metropolis," said Yehezkel Lein of the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem. "Palestinians have been restricted from moving to Jerusalem since the 1990s but they are bringing in more and more Jews with settlements."
Mr Abed Rabbo said the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, raised this week's seizures at his meeting with Mr Sharon on Tuesday but the issue was not resolved.
Mr Sharon's spokesman was not available for comment. Officially, the land was seized under an Ottoman empire law permitting the confiscation of abandoned property. The Israelis say the original owners fled to Jordan in 1967, and have not returned - and so forfeit their properties.
But two of the owners of the confiscated land, one of them Mr Hababa's father, Abdul Karim, were sitting in their homes in Beit Eksa with the deeds to prove their claims.
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