Walls of distrust keep Arabs and Jews apart

The charming Israeli guide, a resident of the burgeoning West Bank Jewish township of Ophra, was lecturing an avid group of American college students who had come to learn about Jewish settlements.

''Look at the empty hills around you,'' Shifra Blass said, pointing to the round, rock-strewed hills to the rear of Ophra's neatly laid-out streets. ''Do you see any Arabs? This is supposed to be one of the most densely Arab-populated areas of the West Bank, but the hills around are empty.''

Motioning toward the bright red geraniums being fed by sprinklers and at the toddlers frolicking inside the Ophra playground, Mrs. Blass, a native of La Crosse, Wis., lectured, ''It is a myth that settlement has to come at the expense of the existing Arab population. The Jewish population can coexist side by side with the Arabs here so long as the world atmosphere encourages it.''

Several hundred feet down the road from the playground, in a house across from the Ophra gateway, guests were gathering at the home of the mukhtar (headman) of Silwad, an Arab village just out of sight of Ophra around the bend of the road. ''Coexist?'' the mukhtar said sharply. ''We have no relations at all with Ophra.''

Fingering his white beard and glancing out over a row of his fig trees just behind Ophra's barbed-wire fence, Mahmoud Muhammad Hamad shrugged, ''How can you coexist with people who take your land?''

Israel is entering its 17th year of occupation of the West Bank without formal annexation and with no end in sight. The prospect of long-term Israeli rule here has raised new questions about the future relations between the 30,000 Jews presently settled on the land and its 720,000 Arabs.

Jewish settlers, for the most part, insist publicly that coexistence is possible and that the Arabs are fairly treated.

But Palestinians, along with Israeli critics of their own government, argue that a system of ''separate and unequal'' has already emerged on the West Bank, a system that gives extensive political and economic rights to Jewish settlers and scarcely any to Palestinians.

''They are trying to maintain two separate communities on the West Bank,'' says Palestinian lawyer Jonathan Kuttab, who practices in east Jerusalem: ''a Jewish community which has all the rights and advantages as if it had stayed in Israel, and a separate system for the Palestinian inhabitants, which restricts their growth. But at the same time they claim the West Bank is not annexed.''

''Ridiculous,'' snaps Shifra Blass, when asked if the word ''apartheid'' describes the relationship of settlers and Palestinians. The South African system, settlers say, is based on systematic racial laws which legitimize racial separation. Nothing like that exists in the West Bank, they point out, where Jews have commercial relations with Arabs.

When the settlers first arrived in 1975, before relations with Arabs soured, there was ''coexistence on a human level and fewer politics,'' insists Mrs. Blass, and some Jews and Arabs exchanged holiday visits.

''In South Africa, blacks are forbidden to travel with whites. Here you will see an Israeli soldier coming back from Lebanon standing in a bus while an Arab sits,'' says Hagai Segal, a slim, bearded graduate of Hebrew University, who works on the settler council's newspaper, Nekuda.

To reach Ophra, 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem, one turns east at the West Bank military headquarters outside the Arab town of Ramallah. The drive passes brown-green stony hills often terraced with olive and fig trees and passes down the main street of the Palestinian village of Ain Yabrud. The street is lined with square, stone-faced houses, small storefronts, and a large mosque. On the road is an Israeli signpost pointing to the site of biblical Ophra, mentioned in the Book of Joshua.

The Arab houses continue sporadically right up to the barbed-wire fence and gate of Ophra, where an armed guard stops suspicious-looking vehicles. Inside, a circular road connects small bungalows with larger A-frame single-family homes. Their yards are filled with bicycles and strollers. The pastoral scene is jarred by an occasional settler armed with a machine gun. Behind the homes are an orchard and industrial sheds housing a carpentry shop, a metalworks, a computer software center, and a chicken farm.

The only Arabs in sight are laborers constructing a new row of A-frames. ''We were forced by circumstances to use Arab labor, because you can't find any Jewish construction workers,'' said Mrs. Black.

Ophra was started on the site of a former Jordanian Army camp. The land for the camp had been expropriated from Silwad and Ain Yabrud villagers by King Hussein's government. In 1975, a group of settlers working on a nearby military basemoved into the Army barracks under the guise of a ''work camp'' in order to overcome objections of the then-Labor Party government, which did not favor settlement in Arab-populated areas.

Many of Ophra's founders were affiliated with Gush Emunim, the most active and ideological settler movement. Gush Emunim followers believe redemption for Israel - and for the world - will come through physical redemption of the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).

With the arrival of the pro-settlement Likud government in 1977, and the subsequent rush of government aid, Ophra expanded to its current 100 families ( 650 people).

''Ophra was all built on state land which King Hussein intended for his base, '' insists Mrs. Blass.

What of stories that cultivated land was seized from Arabs?

She answers, indirectly and impatiently, with this: ''Whether or not some Arabs have squatted on land which wasn't theirs is another story.''

Down the road, in front of the Ain Yabrud mosque, where the old men of the village and the teen-agers gather, village councilor Abu Muhammad (he declines to give his full name) insists, ''The Jordan government was supposed to pay us for the land, but the 1967 (Arab-Israeli) war prevented it. When the Israeli Army took over, we told them Jordan hadn't yet paid, but an Israeli officer said , 'One army goes, another comes.' ''

The villagers say that the Jordan Army camp comprised only about 15 dunams (a quarter-acre). They say Israel has taken hundreds more dunams from the two Palestinian villages - their figures are vague, running from 400 to 600 dunams - plowing under wheat fields and uprooting olive trees and fig trees. ''I personally counted 400 fig trees being uprooted,'' recalls Palestinian agronomist Ibrahim Mattar, who is visiting the village.

He was referring to an incident over a year ago that took place near the rear of Ophra, where a bulldozer can today be seen constructing a road through an area where some fig trees still poke out of the earth. The villagers report that about 50 local landowners who reportedly possessed surveyed title deeds dating to 1954 have brought suit against Ophra for 200 dunams. They don't know the outcome.

The village lives off agriculture - olives, wheat, and figs - and money sent home from emigres who have fanned out to Brazil, Peru, Puerto Rico, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Only a few villagers work as laborers in Israel - unlike many villages which send the bulk of their work force daily to Israeli factories, fields, or construction sites.

Israeli occupation here creates constant economic uncertainty in Ain Yabrud about whether new land will be taken, what they can grow, and where they can sell it. ''You have to get permission to sell West Bank produce or goods in Israel, but there's no restrictions on sales of Israeli goods in the West Bank, '' complains Mr. Mattar. Recent Israeli government orders limit the amount of certain vegetable and fruit trees which Palestinians can plant.

''We believe in our land, but when we feel no security, no rights, it's why we leave,'' said an Ain Yabrud emigre to Chicago, home for a visit.

In Silwad, the mukhtar and villagers gather to celebrate the return of an emigre to Brazil and discuss their problems over tiny cups of Arabic coffee.

''Coexistence?'' The old Mukhtar is still muttering. ''They never invited us to their feasts but on Sukkot (the Jewish harvest celebration when outdoor booths are built of boughs),they come to take the branches off my trees.''

Since the building of Ophra, the expansion of Silwad has been controlled. Military orders forbid construction for 150 yards back from the two-lane local road, and construction behind Ophra is banned. The hosts of the gathering, the Issa family, live three families in this one house, because the brothers who spent years saving money in Brazil cannot get permission to build near Ophra, even more than 150 yards from the road.

''I was planting six olive saplings 20 meters back from the road, and a settler came with a gun to tell me to stop,'' recalls Muhammad Ibrahim. ''I turned my back to him and told him to shoot. But he left.''

Tensions flare periodically between the villages and the settlement over incidents of Arab stone-throwing at Jewish vehicles and of Jewish retribution. ''A year ago,'' recalls Abu Muhammad, the Ain Yabrud councilor, ''a bus from Ophra came by just here and went over a juice carton. It popped and the settlers thought it was a shot. They rushed out of the bus and started shooting in the air.''

''All the Arabs fell to the street and a ricochet hit my leg,'' he adds. ''Also last year, settlers broke windows in 20-30 houses along this road to avenge the throwing of stones.''

Villagers complain it is of little use to go to the Israeli military over such events. Silwad's mukhtar says when he called police about a villager's complaint that settlers had shot up his storage shack, the soldiers who arrived accused him of falsehood. ''But they said in Hebrew, which I know, 'These are Israeli shells.' I told them 'If these were Palestinian bullets you would raise Silwad to the ground.' I won't call the police again.''

In 1982, five Arabs were killed on the West Bank in incidents attributed to settlers, usually in some way related to stone-throwing incidents, but no one was brought to trial. Culprits who placed bombs in the cars of three Arab mayors in June of 1982, seriously maiming two of them, have still not been caught.

''Yes, in a few cases people from the settlement went out and smashed Arab car windows,'' says Shifra Blass. ''It happens when the Army can't protect us, when they get orders to retreat from confrontation when Arabs throw stones.'' She says Jewish parents fear for children traveling in school buses on West Bank roads to Jerusalem or other settlements.

Should window breakers be prosecuted? ''Absolutely not,'' says Jonathan Blass , looking up from his work of providing commentary from Jewish law on statutory decisions by the Israeli Justice Ministry. ''You can't have a situation where stones are thrown by Arabs, and settlers can't protect themselves for fear they will be prosecuted.''

Mr. Blass believes damaging Arab property can be effective because the Arabs will then their children. ''The stone-throwing is organized by PLO inciters,'' says Mrs. Blass.

''Are we children that we need to be incited to protect our rights?'' asks a Silwad villager.

But the Ophra settlers believe the question of Palestinian rights - especially political - is not the legitimate issue.

For Hagai Eshel, the explanation is more basic. ''We are here because we believe all this land is part of the 'Promised Land.' We conquered it, it is ours, why should we give it up?''

Bambi Erlich, another settler, explains, ''The Palestinian population is resentful because they think they still have the possibility to expel us. The moment they realize we are here to stay, things will change.''

Next: The threat to democracy in Israel

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