Outraged Palestinians demand end to evictions    

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The Independent Online

Palestinians are urging the international community to stop the evictions of 58 people from their farms in Al-Khader in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians are urging the international community to stop the evictions of 58 people from their farms in Al-Khader in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian officials regard the demolition of their homes - which could begin as early as next week if court action fails - as further evidence that settlement-related activity is continuing unabated in the West Bank while the Israeli government prepares to withdraw 8,000 settlers from Gaza.

The case has come to a head on the eve of the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the US next week. It has highlighted how the separation barrier, settler access roads and the settlements themselves can cut off sections of the West Bank from each other - and from east Jerusalem - in apparent conflict with George Bush's stated vision of a "contiguous" Palestinian state.

The Israeli military has issued final demolition orders on three outbuildings and seven homes belonging to an extended Palestinian family which for more than 200 years has owned and farmed the adjacent vineyards and orchards in the Um Rukba South neighbourhood of this town west of Bethlehem.

The neighbourhood borders the designated expansion area of the Efrat settlement, part of the large Gush Etzion settlement block, and is within 500 metres of two of its outposts. Both outposts have already taken up tracts of Um Rukba land, says the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's negotiations affairs unit.

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, has called upon the international quartet - the US, EU, UN and Russia - to intervene and prevent "... demolitions which threaten the cause of peace". The residents have petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to overturn the orders and a final decision could come as early as tomorrow.

Citing Mr Sharon's remarks this week suggesting he wanted to go ahead with expansion of the biggest West Bank settlement, Maale Adumim, Mr Erekat added: "These demolitions are part of a broader Israeli campaign to isolate Palestinian East Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied West Bank, annexing Palestinian land, our holy places, and decimating our economy."

Both Israel and the US appear anxious to prevent a row over settlement expansion overshadowing the summit between Mr Sharon and President Bush. The military is arguing that the homes - which are on the Palestinian side of the pre-1967 border - are being demolished only because they do not have Israeli building permits. But Palestinians believe that it wants the homes - at least one of which has been standing for 20 years - destroyed to make way for a rerouting of the barrier to enclose a settler access road between Efrat and the main highway to Jerusalem.

Although the barrier's present route would already cut three miles into Palestinian territory, it would still leave Um Rukba on the Palestinian side. But residents fear that this may now be reversed, leaving the neighbourhood on the settlement's side of the barrier, and even that their land, growing vines, almonds, olives and apricots, could be confiscated.

One of the farmers, Ibrahim Salah, 28, who shares a small two-room house with one of his brothers, sister-in-law, their two children and his mother, said that lack of permits had been used as a "pretext" for destroying their homes. He added: "We think the Israelis have plans for this area. They want to encircle Bethlehem. I don't know where I will go if they destroy my house, but I am even more worried about my land than the house. I plan for it to give me a living and for my children in the future."

Adam Avidan, spokesman for the army's civil administration, insisted that the orders on the buildings had been issued solely because they did not have permits. He said that original orders had been issued in 1995-96, long before the routing of the barrier was an issue, and added: "We are now waiting for the court's decision."

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