Israel's West Bank development plans raise stakes in land struggle

Control of natural resources in the Israeli-occupied Arab lands has been the focus of a decades-long struggle. The killing of a Palestinian in a clash over land last week, and a newly revealed Israeli water-drilling scheme in the West Bank, have again highlighted the issue.

The clash at Obeidiyah village near Bethlehem broke out when Israeli and Arab land dealers confronted a crowd of villagers at a contested plot, where Israeli officials were carrying out a survey to determine competing claims. A shouting match turned violent - the Arab land dealer and bodyguards of his Israeli partner opened fire, killing an elderly Palestinian and wounding six others.

The dealers want the land near Obeidiyah to sell to an Israeli development company that plans to build a major housing project at the site. The company has advertised the new community as ``only 10 minutes from Jerusalem'' and has taken deposits from potential homeowners before assuring that it has title to the land.

Villagers are challenging the dealers' claim to ownership, charging that it is based on forged documents. Disgruntled would-be homeowners from Israel have sued the company to recover their funds.

The case typifies a series of stalled settlement projects in the West Bank, by private Israeli companies, that have foundered on fraudulent land deals. The companies have advertised sales of private lots at bargain prices, before legally securing title deeds. The reduced prices were made possible by low land-buying costs in the West Bank and by generous mortgages and loans offered by the Israeli government to encourage Israelis to settle in the area. Hundreds of Israelis tempted by the companies' offers have been left without either the money they invested or their new homes.

A rush of Israeli land speculation in the West Bank began after 1979, when the Israeli government, then led by the right-wing Likud bloc, lifted a ban on private land purchase by Israelis in the area. The value of West Bank plots within easy commuting distance of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv jumped by thousands of dollars. Some Arabs took advantage of the rising prices to sell to Israelis despite social and political pressure and a death penalty for such sales imposed by Jordan - which had annexed the West Bank before Israel's 1967 occupation.

According to the West Bank Data Project, a research group led by a leading Israeli expert, Meron Benvenisti, one-fifth of the hundreds of acres purchased by Israelis was acquired fraudulently.

The mounting incidents of fraud became a national scandal. The police are still investigating hundreds of such incidents, which have often involved efforts to intimidate Arabs to sell land or forging of titles and sales agreements.

Last week, a major Palestinian land dealer was sentenced to 4 years in prison by an Israeli military court for fraudulent West Bank land deals involving Israelis.

According to Dr. Benvenisti, private land purchases and government expropriation have put 42 percent of West Bank lands in Israeli possession.

West Bank water resources have also come increasingly under Israeli control. Last week, an unprecedented Israeli plan was revealed: to drill deeply into a prime aquifer near Bethlehem in order to pump massive quantities of water - mostly to Jerusalem and Israeli settlements.

The scheme is slated to supply to Arab communities only one-fourth to one-third of the water pumped annually. Some officials and experts familiar with the scheme have warned that it could deplete wells serving neighboring Arab villages and towns.

The mayors of Bethlehem and two neighboring Arab towns held an emergency meeting last week and called on Israeli officials to scrap the project.

According to official estimates, some 42 percent of the 100 million cubic meters of water pumped annually in the West Bank already goes to Jewish settlements. While Israeli and Arab-owned wells in the area serve Arab communities as well as Jewish settlements, virtually no new permits are granted to Arabs to drill new wells in the West Bank.

The Israel state comptroller, in his annual report published last week, noted that Israeli settlements on the West Bank had exceeded their water consumption quotas by as much as 45 percent. And the national water company, he said, had exceeded its pumping quotas in the West Bank's Jordan Valley region by 20 percent, threatening to salinate existing water wells.

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