Settlers expand in West Bank

RAMALLAH, occupied West Bank (IPS) - A little village nestled in a valley between several hills in the Bethlehem governorate is today fighting for survival.

All around Wadi Fuqin village on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the southern West Bank is the expanding and illegal Israeli settlement Beitar Illit, home to 35,000 settlers. The settlement is situated on a hill overlooking the little Palestinian village of 2,500.

Next to the settlement several mushrooming settler outposts together with Beitar form a semi-circle around Wadi Fuqin, closing in on it.

While settlement construction booms and the number of settlers in Beitar and its outposts continues to swell, Palestinians in Wadi Fuqin are forbidden by the Israeli authorities from building new homes, or enlarging current ones to accommodate new generations.

IPS accompanied Palestinian Authority (PA) agricultural ministry officials on a tour of Bethlehem and surrounding villages to assess first-hand the shrinking land available to Palestinians as settlement expansion in the West Bank accelerates.

“We are facing a disaster,” says PA Agriculture Minister Dr Ismail Da’iq. “We are losing land at an unprecedented rate due to Israeli settlement expansion and its closed military zones.”

“In order to combat this continual land theft we have launched a project which aims to plant five million trees on land in the Bethlehem governorate over the next five years,” Da’iq told IPS. “We hope this will make it harder for Israel to expropriate our land, but this is not a guarantee.”

Indeed, on way from Ramallah to Bethlehem this IPS correspondent saw several dozen Palestinian trees that had been sawed off just above ground level by the Israeli authorities.

Under the 1993 Oslo accords, 66 percent of the Bethlehem governorate was designated as part of Area C of the West Bank, which falls under complete Israeli jurisdiction in regard to planning and construction.

“The PA made a mistake by agreeing to this during Oslo, but it is one we hope to rectify. We are determined that there will be no resumption of peace talks until Israel freezes all settlement activity in the West Bank,” Da’iq told IPS.

According to a report last month from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), after four decades of Israeli occupation only 13 percent of the governorate, much of it fragmented, remains for Palestinian use.

“Today, there are approximately 86,000 Israelis living in 19 settlements in the Bethlehem governorate and in 16 settlement outposts,” says the OCHA report. “The Palestinian population constitutes approximately 175,000.”

If construction of the separation barrier, which separates Israel proper from the West Bank, continues along its present route, Palestinian access to land, grazing and water resources will be further limited.

The current barrier route deviates significantly into Palestinian territory from the internationally recognized Green Line, swallowing large swathes of territory along the way.

An estimated 21,000 Palestinian residents of Bethlehem governorate will as a result face additional restrictions to accessing markets, health services and higher education in Bethlehem’s urban areas. Bethlehem’s potential for residential and industrial expansion has already been reduced.

Most Bethlehem residents are also cut off from Palestinian East Jerusalem, as only a limited number are given the requisite Israeli security permits to enter the city.

Those lucky enough to secure the permits, mostly for employment, wait on average an hour and ten minutes crossing the security barrier, according to a report by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) released at the beginning of the year.

East Jerusalem has significant cultural, educational, religious, business and family ties for West Bankers.

The Jerusalem municipality has also redrawn the city’s municipal boundaries to incorporate large chunks of the Bethlehem area including the large Israeli settlements of Har Homa and Gilo.

Israel accelerated appropriation of Palestinian land in 1950 under the Absentee Property Law. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had either fled, many only temporarily, or were driven off their land during the 1948 war which saw the birth of the Jewish state.

The village Nahalin, near Bethlehem, now has only 10,000 dunams (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters) of land. Before 1948 it had 17,000 dunams.

“My grandfather had 100 dunams of land in 1948 on which he used to grow olives and grapes,” Dib Najaja, a father of five told IPS. “Today my family has only two dunams left. I could make an extra $700 a month farming if I still had access to that land.

“But I’m fortunate in that I have a full-time job as a municipal council member. Other people who depend entirely on farming to make a living are destitute.”

Wadi Fuqin which lies right near the Green Line is in a precarious position because half the village relies on agriculture for survival.

Prior to 1948, when all the villagers either fled or were driven out, the village had 14,000 dunams of land. Today it has 6,000 dunams.

“Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war when Israel occupied the West Bank, we started leaving Dheisheh refugee camp and surreptitiously creeping back at night until a sizable number of us had returned,” Muhammad Shaker, 80, one of the original refugees who lives in a nearby cave, told IPS.

The future of Wadi Fuqin lies in the balance and at the mercy of international pressure on Israel.

“We need help with rehabilitating the land to make it once again agriculturally viable,” Awni Al-Manassra, a village committee member, told IPS. “We also need financial assistance to fight Israeli court cases over land confiscation and pending home demolitions for the homes built without Israeli permits.”

The Israeli rights group Peace Now has reported that the Israeli authorities have approved a further 790 housing units in Beitar Illit. There are also plans for the construction of 2,500 housing units in Gi’vat Eitam, an extension of the Efrat settlement near Bethlehem.

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