Palestinian village caught amid Israel settlements

AP News
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Posted: Dec 17, 2009 5:06 AM

The head of this Palestinian village can't scan the horizon without being reminded of everything his people have lost.

From the roof of the village council building, Abdelnasser Bedawi can see six of the nine Israeli settlements and outposts that have sprung up on the surrounding hills in the last three decades, fencing in the village and keeping it from two-thirds of its land.

From a grassy hilltop in one of those settlements, Shiloh, Batya Medad sees a different story in the settlers' red-roofed houses: She calls it the return of the Jewish people to land God promised them in the Old Testament.

Bedawi and Medad speak different languages and have never met, though their homes lie less than 2 kilometers (only about a mile) apart. Between them lies the harsh conflict over Israel's West Bank settlements.

The settlements have emerged as the chief roadblock in Middle East peace efforts.

The Palestinians consider them a threat to the state they hope for in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. Their leaders have refused to resume talks until all settlement building stops.

After rebuffing American and Palestinian calls for a freeze in building, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in late November a 10-month halt to new construction in West Bank settlements like Shiloh as a step toward restarting talks.

Settlers have protested the move, saying it restricts life in their communities, while Palestinians have rejected it because it doesn't apply to east Jerusalem nor to some 3,000 homes already under construction elsewhere.

Settlements, now numbering about 120 in the West Bank, have been argued over by lawyers and negotiators ever since they started going up after Israel captured the territories in the 1967 war. Today, about a half million Israelis live in the West Bank and in the Arab sector of Jerusalem which Israel annexed _ a move the world has never recognized.

Qariout, a rocky village of 2,600 people about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Jerusalem, illustrates why Palestinians are so desperate to halt the spread of settlements.

Beyond the political issue of their effect on borders for any future state, they constrict life in hundreds of West Bank villages by gobbling up farmland, restricting movement and exposing villagers to clashes with settlers, Palestinians say.

Shiloh was the first settlement in the Qariout area, founded in 1979. Since then two other settlements have sprung up nearby, along with six smaller wildcat outposts, which are illegal under Israeli law but get electricity, water and protection from the government.

Together, they surround the village on three sides and deny it access to about two-thirds of its land, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli rights groups that tracks settlements.

Dror Etkes, of Yesh Din, said the Israeli government has officially allocated 28 percent of the village's original 840 hectares (2,100 acres) to nearby settlements.

Another 35 to 40 percent of the village's land has been taken unofficially by settlers or the Israeli army, he said.

Sometimes, settlers fence off or cultivate plots, chasing off Palestinians who try to reach them, he said.

Other times, Israeli authorities seize plots to build army posts or roads between settlements. Once a road is built, villagers can rarely reach the land beyond it, Etkes said.

At the same time, Israel refuses to let the village pave the two-kilometer-long (1.2 mile) road to the highway and regularly bulldozes it shut, calling it "illegal" and forcing villagers to make a 22-kilometer (13-mile) detour.

Mohammed Muqbil, a farmer born in Qariout in 1939, said he has lost two of his three plots to settlements. The army confiscated one in 1982 and settlers now grow grapes on it. Settlers chased him from another in 2003, then planted olive trees, he said.

His remaining plot, near the Shvut Rachel settlement, has been a battleground since 2000. Settlers have plowed up his wheat, harvested his olives, prevented him from working and even beat him up, he said. In 2007, a settler uprooted his 300 trees with a bulldozer, he said.

His father farmed the plots before Muqbil was born, and Muqbil said he has documents from Israel and Jordan, ruler of the West Bank until 1967, proving his ownership.

He also keeps an inch-thick stack of Israeli police reports he filed after each incident _ all to no avail, he said.

Yesh Din has documented 14 incidents near Qariout of criminal trespassing and attacks on Palestinians by settlers in the last two years.

But complaints rarely bear fruit.

An Israeli police statement said that out of 60 cases involving damaged trees in the West Bank over the past three years, only three brought indictments. That's because the vandalism is often carried out at night by "lone perpetrators" and Palestinians sometimes wait months or years to file complaints, the statement said.

Neta Patrick of Yesh Din's legal team said "such investigations are not the top priority of the Israeli police." Investigators rarely collect forensic evidence or check settlers' alibis when looking into alleged settler crimes, she said.

Muqbil says he now reaches his remaining field only a few times a year, in coordination with the army. He has planted 70 new olive trees, which won't produce for five years, he said. He worries they won't live that long.

"I'm scared they'll tear them out again," he said.

Shmaya Tiran, a spokesman for the Shvut Rachel settlement, said Muqbil's claims are "lies he tells the media."

"He invaded our land and planted crops, not the other way around. This land belongs to us, not to him. Nobody here attacked him," he said.

Some Israelis view the communities as a front line of defense against their enemies; others call them a religious imperative.

In Shiloh, a town of 2,200 people, billboards advertise new homes, and foundations have been laid for about 10 new buildings that remain exempt from the 10-month construction freeze. The community has two schools, a seminary, three synagogues and a swimming pool, said Medad.

The Bible gives Jews the right to live in Shiloh, she said.

"In most of the Western world, when you swear on the Bible, you are swearing that Shiloh is Jewish," she said.

Medad and her husband immigrated from Great Neck, New York, to Israel in 1970. She said when they came to Shiloh the hills were covered with wildflowers because "nobody had ever walked here, nobody had cultivated it, nobody owned it."

She is 60 and vows no peace deal can make her leave.

"I don't need anybody's permission to live here. The Jewish people have a long, long history. We don't have to listen to upstarts," she said.

Behind Medad stood about 30 trailers for new residents waiting for homes, followed by rows of greenhouses. Shiloh and its neighbors are surrounded by security roads lined with surveillance cameras, concertina wire and guard dogs every 30 meters (100 feet) to keep Palestinians away and prevent attacks.

Medad denied her Arab neighbors had history in the area and said she rarely thinks about them.

"If they want to live in peace with us, they can stay," she said. "If they don't want peace, then they should go."

Back in Qariout, Bedawi says true peace would require settlers to leave.

"How can you make a state when there are settlements all over the West Bank?" he said.

He recalled his childhood when he'd swim in a local spring and play in a field where his family grew wheat and tomatoes.

Today, he doesn't let his 7-year-old son leave the village for fear he'll run into settlers, he said. He's not sure where the boy would go anyway: Both the field and the spring now lie inside Shiloh.

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Associated Press writer Ian Deitch contributed reporting from Jerusalem.