Barrier plan reignites settlement rancor

Israel seized Palestinian land in the West Bank to extend the wall around a large Jewish settlement.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

From the foothills of this settlement, the undeveloped land known as E1 looks like just another collection of arid slopes with a charming smattering of trees.

But this bucolic landscape has become a contentious new spot on the map of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, following an Israeli decision last week to seize Palestinian land to build a controversial separation barrier around this, the largest settlement in the West Bank.

The barrier's construction began three years ago at the height of Israel-Palestinian violence. Israel said it was needed to keep out suicide bombers.

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Yesterday, a rush-hour suicide bombing on a bus in the Israeli city of Beersheba - the first attack since Israel withdrew from Gaza and four West Bank settlements last week - injured 50 Israelis, two seriously. The attack, condemned by the Palestinian Authority, bolstered Israeli proponents of finishing the barrier, which does not yet exist in the southern West Bank - closer to Beersheba.

But it is the plan for the barrier here that is expected to generate more rancorous debate. The Israeli government views it as a natural step toward bringing this settlement of nearly 30,000 people inside the confines of the wall. Palestinians view it as an effort to deny them a contiguous piece of territory in the West Bank. That view is shared by the US, which has expressed opposition to longstanding Israeli plans to construct 3,500 new housing units here. Some of the most vocal calls to halt development of E1 - which lies east of Jerusalem - are being made by the pro-peace Israeli group Ir Amim, meaning "City of Peoples."

"This cuts any kind of natural Palestinian growth in East Jerusalem off from the West Bank," says Sarah Kreimer, the group's associate director, pointing toward E1's hilltops while leading local and foreigner observers on a tour of the barrier's development. "By creating this huge bubble, it creates new boundaries that prevent us from eventually getting to a two-state solution."

The significance of E1 and the bridge it would create between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim can be understood in the context of the checkerboard of Israeli and Palestinian population centers in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem, part of Jordan until the Six Day War in 1967, and built Jewish neighborhoods beyond the "Green Line" that divided the two countries. But the Arab population of East Jerusalem never took Israeli citizenship. Palestinians view these neighborhoods as part of the capital of their future state. But that capital would need access to the major West Bank cities to the north and south.

East Jerusalem Palestinians and West Bankers have been closely tied, with regular travel between Jerusalem and other cities for commerce, education, and health services. The wall and a growth of checkpoints has made such travel increasingly difficult. Palestinians fear that development of E1 will further constrain movement and make it impossible for the West Bank portion of a state-to-be to have territorial integrity and access to East Jerusalem.

If Israel builds up E1, indicating that it might annex the land in the future, it would confiscate Palestinian land on Jerusalem's outskirts. According to the first expropriation order, the village of A-Tur, for example, would have 22 acres seized. Palestinians say they would appeal this in Israeli court.

Israel says it is important to develop E1 and include it within the barrier so that Maale Adumim is not isolated. But Palestinians see other forces at work. "It's a good step to see them withdraw from the Gaza Strip, but it's not good for us in the West Bank," says Abdel Hadi Hantash, head of the Palestinian Land Defense Committee. "They want to expand existing settlements and cut the West Bank into two. This will only lead the area to war, not to peace."

Israel has indicated it will move quickly on plans to construct a new police headquarters here. "The government is saying, all we're doing is buidling a police station in E1," says Ms. Kreimer. "It's a testing of international reaction. If it goes over well, our understanding is that there will be another step."

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