Troops in land-grab clashes

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The Independent Online
FIsraeli troops clashed yesterday with hundreds of Arabs and Jewish peace activists protesting at a new West Bank settlement which has put pressure on the Israeli-PLO peace talks.

The five-day battle to prevent al-Khader hill being taken over for Jewish settlement has stirred more publicity than any other settlement row in recent times. As well as drawing attention to Israel's continuing expansion plans in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, it has exposed the fact that there has been little halt to settlement since the signing of the Oslo peace deal.

Palestinian villagers from al-Khader, who say they have owned the land for centuries, backed by Israeli peace activists, charged lines of Israeli soldiers positioned on the hill to protect the path of bulldozers, driven by settlers from the nearby enclave of Efrat. Troops pushed back the protesters using clubs, and arrested more than a dozen. A curfew was later imposed on the Palestinians in the area.

The flare-up at al Khader has highlighted just how little real peace is being implemented in the occupied territories. In theory, Israel and the Palestinians should by now have agreed how to implement the second phase of autonomy under which the Israeli army should withdraw from the West Bank ahead of the Palestinian elections.

The Israeli government has referred the Khader case to the attorney-general, but the ruling is likely to be considered within the context of the occupation and unlikely to alter the settlement strategy, say legal experts.

The clashes, embarrassing as they are for the Israeli government, have also put Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, on the spot. He is being widely criticised for signing the Oslo declaration of the principles which did not specifically call for a halt to settlement.

The PLO leader has made clear that he will not call off the peace talks over the issue, but if protests continue he may be forced to take a stronger stand.

Israeli land seizures in the West Bank are illegal under Geneva conventions and other international law governing the behaviour of an occupying power. However, it continues to justify seizing "state land" by citing quasi-legal procedures put in place after the 1967 war.