Israel fails to soothe West Bank

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The Independent Online
Specks of blood on the stones of the dirt road mark the flight of the villagers of Deir Qadis after Israeli soldiers shot dead one and wounded 12 when they demonstrated against the confiscation of their land to build a Jewish settlement.

It was the worst violence on the West Bank since 60 Palestinians and 15 Israelis were killed in September after Israel opened a tunnel in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem. Amid fluttering Palestinian flags, police carried the body of Atallah Amireh, 36, a father of nine, to his grave in the nearby village of Nilin.

Earlier in the day, some 200 people from four Palestinian villages north- west of Jerusalem and close to the border between the West Bank and Israel had marched to a hill where Israeli bulldozers were clearing land to expand a settlement of ultra-orthodox Jews at Kiryat Sefer. "We are losing the equivalent of 1,250 acres," says Qais Nabhan, a local schoolteacher. "We won't have any land left to build on."

"When the villagers reached the place where the bulldozers were at work, soldiers told them to go home because they had no permit for their demonstration. Mohammed Abu Sabr, who was one of the marchers, said that "many of demonstrators were quite old, in their forties or fifties."

A confrontation started when an elderly man was pushed over and young Palestinians started jostling the soldiers. The soldiers first fired in the air and then at the legs of villagers from close range. They responded by throwing stones, and the soldiers began to fire at chest height. Mr Amireh was shot as he turned to leave. As with the violence on 5 September, the Israeli army responded to stone-throwing with live rounds aimed to kill.

The incident shows that the easing yesterday of the Israeli closure of the West Bank and Gaza, preventing workers reaching employment in Israel, is unlikely to reduce tensions. The speed with which Israel is pushing ahead with building what is in effect a new settlement near Kiryat Sefer is also likely to undermine any remaining Palestinian confidence in the Oslo accords.

Work at expanding Kiryat Sefer, home to ultra-orthodox Jews housed in pink-coloured six- or seven-storey blocks, started "a week ago and the local children have been throwing some stones at the soldiers," says Mr Nabhan. Despite the shooting earlier in the day, five yellow bulldozers were working yesterday evening at levelling terraces and pushing over olive trees. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, has promised to increase numbers of the 140,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.

Meanwhile, in one of the few signs of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians in recent months, the descendants of Jews who used to live in Hebron before the massacre of 1929, in which 67 of them were killed by Palestinians, returned yesterday to disassociate themselves from the present-day Israeli settlers

"The settlers today don't represent the old community of Hebron,"said Moshe Galmor on meeting the Palestinian mayor, Mustafa Natshe. He added: "We have no connection with them."

The 48 families of Israeli settlers in central Hebron, who believe that the West Bank and Gaza were given by God to the Jews and that the 2.5 million Palestinian residents are there on sufferance, often portray themselves as the successors to the pre-1929 Jewish community in Hebron. The present- day settlers are defended by 1,000 Israeli troops.