Planners turning screws on the West Bank

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The Independent Online
SINCE the start of negotiations over Palestinian autonomy in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the Israeli military authorities have launched a new drive to curb development and curtail building in nearly 300 Arab villages.

Palestinian leaders believe the programme has been accelerated in the past year to establish precedents - or 'facts on the ground' - for the delineation of boundaries when decisions come to be taken on who has authority over West Bank land. Israeli military planners have, without consulting villagers, published boundaries for each village, arbitrarily severing communities and preventing growth. The plans allow building, but only in zones which are, in general, densely populated.

The Israeli planners say they are trying to rationalise Palestinian building but the villagers of al- Yamoun, near the West Bank town of Jenin, are challenging the policy through an Israeli occupation appeals procedure, on the grounds that the plans take no account of the interests of the local population. Two schools, a cemetery, an oil press, hundreds of houses and the majority of the village land are outside the planning boundary.

The planning programme was originally drawn up by Israel in 1981 and then shelved after a Palestinian outcry. Palestinian planners said it had been reactivated to further the latest phase of 'creeping annexation', which started in 1967 with the acquisition by Israel of vast chunks of 'state land' in the West Bank, much of which was then given over to Jewish settlements. With the pool of land available for confiscation drying up, Israel is now focusing on curbing the growth of the Palestinian population on lands that remain theirs.

Who can claim ownership of and control over the territory seized by Israel in 1967 has been central to the current negotiations on the shape of the interim Palestinian autonomy which, under the terms of the talks, would be established before the final status of the territory would be decided. Originally Israel said autonomy was 'for the people and not for the land'.

Then, in an apparant concession, in the final round of talks in November last year, before the deportation of some 400 Palestinians blocked further progress, the Israelis proposed a three-tier plan for control of the land.

Jewish settlers would maintain control of land which they have been granted by Israel since 1967, believed to constitute about 10 per cent of the area. Palestinians would be granted control of the land which still remains in their possession in towns and villages, believed now to constitute less than 5 per cent of the area. The rest of the land, of which an estimated 65 per cent has been declared Israeli 'state land' since 1967, would come under shared Israeli-Palestinian control. This proposal was unacceptable to the Palestinian delegation, which wants autonomy over all the lands seized by Israel in 1967.

The fact that, as discussions have continued, new boundaries are being drawn around the Arab villages, has further reduced Palestinian confidence in the Israeli proposal. 'These plans are clearly designed to de-limit the areas of Palestinian autonomy during the interim status,' said Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian human rights lawyer. 'They thereby prejudice the final outcome. During the interim period of autonomy these villages would naturally grow and expand. The plans will prevent that happening.'

The plans are in marked contrast to the large boundaries which have been looped round Jewish settlements in the West Bank. And the demolition of Palestinian homes built without permits is in marked contrast to the continued Jewish building on the West Bank.

Al-Yamoun is piled on top of a small hill about four kilometres (2 1/2 miles) from the boundary with Israel, drawn up when the state was created after the war of 1948. The village has a population of 13,000, growing by 4 per cent a year. The head of the village council, Saleh Mubadde Nawahda, said half the village land was lost when the 1948 boundary was drawn and is now in Israeli hands.

Since the Israeli occupation, villages like al-Yamoun have been restricted in what they could build and develop: the shells of demolished houses, built without licences, litter the place. As a result, overcrowding has intensified in the centre of the village, where families live three or four to a house, where stores display their wares on the pavement, and where old men set up their gaming tables in the road.

Mr Nawahda said he first heard of the Israeli plan in October in a newspaper article. To draw up their plans, the Israeli officials simply trace a line on an aerial photograph around the densely populated area of the village. It is a line round the neck of al-Yamoun covering 10 per cent of the village-owned lands.

Officials admitted there was no consultation and no attempt to carry out detailed planning or to account for public services, but they insisted that the plan did take account of population growth. 'If Palestinians wish to develop their own services inside this area, it is for them to do so,' said one Israeli official.

Already the military authorities are penalising those who have built outside the boundary. Walid Honsheia received a notice last week that his half-built house, on his family's land beyond the new line, would be destroyed. Like many other al-Yamoun residents, he started building to relieve overcrowding in the family home. 'I started building two years ago. Now God only knows what will happen,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)