Palestinian mass protest halts work on Israel's security wall

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The Independent Online

Israel suspended construction of a security fence near the village of Iskaka yesterday, east of the settler town of Ariel, after hundreds of Palestinian and Israeli demonstrators traded stones for tear gas with troops and paramilitary police. The bulldozers are expected to be digging again soon.

Israel suspended construction of a security fence near the village of Iskaka yesterday, east of the settler town of Ariel, after hundreds of Palestinian and Israeli demonstrators traded stones for tear gas with troops and paramilitary police. The bulldozers are expected to be digging again soon.

Excavation began there this week deep inside the West Bank, halfway between the Arab cities of Nablus and Ramallah, despite an undertaking to the United States to defer building. Israel said the new stretch around Ariel would not be connected "for the time being" to the main fence separating the West Bank from Israel.

Six miles west of the settlement, where work started 10 days ago, 22 bulldozers yesterday were uprooting olive trees belonging to villagers from Al-Zawyeh. The barrier will run barely 14ft from the nearest house.

Washington showed its displeasure on Tuesday when Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, criticised the Ariel fence for defining permanent boundaries, confiscating Palestinian land and making daily life more difficult for Palestinian civilians.

The Arabs of Al Zawyeh know what he means. "They have stolen our land, our water," said Anan al Ashqar, head of the local committee to combat the wall. "This is a racist segregation. They have taken the best of our land, the most beautiful landscapes in the West Bank."

He long ago lost faith in the Palestinian Authority's ability to change things. "The Palestinian state has become an illusion," he said. "It is very silly to think there will be a state in the future. The Israelis' bad intentions are clear. All our land has become a hinterland for Tel Aviv. Our villages, confined by walls, gates, and checkpoints, have become densely populated camps."

In Salfit, a town just south of Ariel, Abdel Fattah Yassin and his family have lost 10 acres of land planted with 400 olive trees. "This is theft," he said. "There is no other description. They have deprived me of 60 tins of olive oil every two years."

In Ariel, Dina Shalit, director for the Jewish town's development fund, claimed that most of the fence was built on a state land. The rest, she added, belonged to "so-called Palestinians". Abdel Fattah Yassin said: "They are the strongest party here. They can claim anything; they can say anything. We have planted this land with wheat and barley. All I know is that they have destroyed our livelihood."

Clambering over a rocky barrier in the shadow of a crane and half a dozen bulldozers, the 58-year-old Mr Yassin was on his way home from work on a building site in Ariel. The irony was not lost on him.

"It is very painful for me to build for them on our land, but I have no other choice," he said. "I have nine children to feed. I blame the Arab countries. They have had plenty of time to build on this land."

Usama Khafash, who has five children, lives with a similar dilemma. The new fence is planned to slice through the village of Marda, on the slopes beneath Ariel. It would cut his shop, where he sells house and garden plants, from his house. Most of his customers are Jewish settlers. "Ours is a tragic-comic story," he said with a wry smile. Dina Shalit insisted that Israel was building the fence to keep out Palestinian terrorists. At the same time, the army continues to take the war to the Palestinians.

North of Ariel early yesterday, undercover forces shot dead a wanted Islamic Jihad gunman and arrested four others in a café in Jenin. The dead man was identified as Majed al-Saadi, aged 25. Witnesses said a taxi driver eating in the café was critically wounded.

Despite the relative quiet inside Israel for the past three months, it was the second assassination in two days. On Tuesday in Nablus, a helicopter gunship rocketed a car carrying a senior fighter, killing him and two assistants. "We will continue to operate against anyone who is involved in terrorist activities," an army spokesman said.

Security sources named their target as Halil Araysha, a 22-year-old leader of the Tanzim, the military wing of Yasser Arafat's al-Fatah movement, in the Balata refugee camp. They accused him of recruiting nine suicide bombers since March last year to attack soldiers and civilians.

This week, Shaul Mofaz, the Defence Minister, unveiled plans to build hundreds of homes in West Bank settlements close to the pre-1967 border to house Jewish families evacuated from the Gaza Strip under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan. The international peace "road-map", stalled but not dead, required Israel to freeze settlement construction.

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