Final land grab?

Despite Israel's claim that it is not expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, bulldozers are preparing the ground for new homes.

Published December 14, 2004 2:45PM (EST)

Sharif Omar has been waiting two years for the bulldozers, ever since Israel's steel and barbed wire "security fence" carved its way between his village and its land. Last week the excavators and diggers finally arrived on the outskirts of Jayyous to lay the foundations for an expansion of the nearby Jewish settlement of Zufim, fulfilling the fears and warnings of its Palestinian neighbors.

The bulldozers were preparing the ground for hundreds of new homes, despite the Israeli government's claim that it is not expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Like other building work along the route of the barrier, it seems to be an attempt to ensure that the land between the fence and the 1967 border remains in Israeli hands in any final agreement with the Palestinians.

"When they built the fence, we said they would use it to build a much bigger settlement, and they would take our land to do it," said Omar, whose olive and citrus groves are now encircled. "It is very clear to us, they are planning to confiscate all of our land and drive us from here. They came and told us to finish harvesting because they were going to begin building 80 houses. They are beginning with my neighbor's land, but if they do it there they will do it on mine."

At least five other sites along the barrier have settlement work in progress. Israeli human rights groups say the government appears to be racing to fill in the gap between the barrier and the Israeli border before a U.S. team arrives next year to mark out the final limits of settlement expansion.

Zufim, where about 200 families live, is built on 136 hectares (336 acres) of land confiscated from Jayyous in 1986. An Israeli rights group, Bimkom, says that developers in Zufim plan to build about 1,200 new homes. Yehezkel Lein, a researcher for another Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, said the military government in the occupied territories had issued permits for the work.

He added: "In the plan for Zufim there is an extension to the north of the settlement that was already approved. There is also another expansion to the east. But there is no territorial contiguity between Zufim and the new construction, so it is really a new settlement." He said the government's intention became clear when it sited the barrier between Jayyous and Zufim so that most of the land was on the settlers' side. "The fence took an inconvenient route, not one that is best for security. If you ask why, it can only be to take the land."

About 400 more houses are being built around Alfe Menashe settlement, at the heart of an enclave created by a loop in the barrier less than two miles south of Zufim. Trapped inside are five smaller Palestinian communities of about 1,000 people and their land. A short distance away work has begun on about 50 houses at Nof Sharon on land confiscated from a Palestinian town. In recent months the government has invited tenders to build thousands of houses in big settlements, such as Ariel, and those close to Jerusalem, including Ma'ale Adumim.

The first stage of the peace road map obliges Israel to freeze all settlement construction. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in Jerusalem last month that the government was not expanding its settlements. But a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, said Monday that Israel had an agreement with the United States that new building was allowed within existing built-up areas. "The [phrase] 'settlement expansion' means the outward growth of settlements. From our interpretation, that means building inside existing settlements," he said.

Pressed on why the building near Zufim and other sites was some distance from the settlements, Regev said there was a different view of Jewish colonies close to the 1967 border. "We are talking about places that it's accepted will remain inside Israel whatever the outcome of final-status talks. It's possible that in those places the thinking is different."

The Palestinians say there is no such acceptance on their part, and this is an Israeli interpretation of an agreement with Washington. Settlement expansion between the barrier and the Green Line has been encouraged by a letter from President Bush to Ariel Sharon in April promising that "population concentrations" in the occupied territories -- taken to mean Jewish settlements -- would remain in Israeli hands under any peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Last week, the U.S. National Security Council advisor on the Middle East, Elliott Abrams, told a closed meeting of Jewish leaders that Washington saw settlements to the east of the barrier as ultimately intended for removal. But he said Israel would be allowed to hold on to those to the west, which include Zufim.

The Palestinian communities trapped in the enclave with Alfe Menashe have gone to the Israeli high court to get the barrier moved, in part because they are afraid that settlement expansion will grab more of their land.

Last week government lawyers told the court that living next to Alfe Menashe gave the Palestinians the opportunity to find jobs in the settlement, and so they "were not only not harmed by building the fence but even benefited from it."

The villagers' lawyer, Michael Sefarad, was astonished by the government's claim. "None of the enclave's residents wants the fence, and [they are] not interested in being at the mercy of the settlers. To suggest that is outrageous," he said. "It reveals how the Justice Ministry really regards the Palestinians' lives and wishes. If anyone can even think that a Palestinian would be happy to live in a walled-in enclave because it gives him the opportunity to work in a settlement, it is very sad."

By Chris McGreal

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