Conflict as Israelis step up land grabs

Settler expansion is still rife, writes Sarah Helm from Jerusalem
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They may be talking about peace, but on the West Bank, the Israelis are continuing the same old war - over land.

After yesterday's conflict at al-Khader, south of Jerusalem, there can be no doubt about the aim - the annexation of more Arab land for Jewish settlement. The result of yesterday's confrontation was clear from the start. The residents of a Palestinian village had come out holding nothing but olive branches, to resist the advance of the Israeli army, flanked by bulldozers and armoured jeeps.

In theory, the Oslo peace accords should bar Israel from altering the status of the occupied lands by continuing settlement during the negotiations. But in the past year there has been a 10 per cent increase in Jewish settlers living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. There are now more than 140,000 settlers among over one million Arabs.

The government of Israel has assured the US that it will not build new settlements, but spokesmen made "no comment", while the settlers called the proposed settlement by the euphemism "new neighbourhood".

Spokesmen for Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, condemned the seizure and protested at the arrest of the villagers, including old men who had come out to protect their land but their voices were drowned out by the bulldozers.

This particular clash began early when residents of the small Arab village of al-Khader sat down on top of a hill, which they say they have farmed for centuries, in an act of "passive resistance" as the bulldozers, driven by Jewish settlers from nearby Efrat, advanced.

Taher Darwish watched his 60-year-old father and two brothers taken off in ambulances as they were dragged off after refusing to move. About 15 villagers were injured in the confrontation and 80 were jailed. "Our family owns three acres on this hill. We have farmed it for four centuries," said Mr Darwish as the Palestinian protesters were forced to retreat."We are refugees in our own land. They want to take use away. They want to force us to move away altogether."

Already the tumble-down village of al-Khader is ringed by Jewish settlements and settler roads. The village once farmed 5,000 acres, but at least 1,000 acres were seized many years ago for the settlements. Al-Khader, inhabited by 7,000 people, is barred by Israeli military order from building outside the built-up centre of the village. Villagers live two or three families to a house. Few have cars and only those with exceptional permission are allowed to travel to Jerusalem because the Israeli government has blocked Palestinians from entering the city, even though the east side is the Arabs' de-facto capital.

The West Bank territory around al-Khader is highly prized by the Israeli government, and building has continued since the signing of the Oslo peace accords. To the south is the well-established settler enclave of Gush Etzion, and to the north are a ring of smaller settlements. To the east, Efrat dominates the ridge. This is a showpiece settlement lived in by Israeli commuters who drive into Jerusalem, 15 minutes away. It is planned to perfection, with several "neighbourhoods" sitting around a neat scheme of parks, traffic islands and shopping malls. A highway is being cut through the hillside below al-Khader, to enable settlers to by-pass Arab towns and villages.

Efrat houses 5,000 settlers and is constantly expanding. Moshe Ben Ellishar, Efrat's chief engineer, who emigrated from Morocco in 1967, says there are plans to build homes for a further 20,000 Jews. The land seized yesterday will be large enough for 500houses but there are also plans for several other "new neighbourhoods," he said.

The building is being paid for by individual settlers. He said he knew nothing of Palestinian claims. " I worry about my own concerns and needs. This land belonged to the government."