Barbed Wire, Bullets Mark Israeli Push in West Bank

State and settlers step up land grabs, intimidation of Palestinians

A SMALL pile of stones holding an olive branch lies by the dark brown bloodstain on the sunbaked hillside. Abdulrahim al-Nawajah placed it there to mark the spot where his father Mahmoud, a Palestinian shepherd, died last Friday evening. The father was shot by a Jewish resident of this West Bank settlement in a dispute over grazing rights for his sheep.

Sixty miles north of Susiya, outside Ramallah, a narrow road that winds through olive groves is fenced with barbed wire. Behind the barrier lie 200 acres of land that the Israeli military governor of the West Bank has declared a ``closed military zone,'' off limits even to its owners.

For Palestinians throughout the West Bank, the bloodstains and the barbed wire symbolize a wave of land confiscations in the Israeli-occupied territories since the Gulf War ended. With 40 percent of West Bank land already confiscated by the Israeli authorities, and another 20 percent closed by the military since 1967, ``they are draining our lifeblood,'' laments one Ramallah landowner.

Israel has confiscated 32,545 acres of land in the West Bank in the past three months, nearly double the amount during all of 1990, according to the Palestinian-run ``Land and Water Establishment'' research group.

Most confiscations are carried out simply by declaring land ``state land'' and making it hard, if not impossible, for Palestinians to overturn such a ruling. But Palestinians have found they can lose their land in other ways.

Mahmoud al-Nawajah was killed in the wake of growing tension between the Jewish settlers of Susiya, a cluster of red-roofed bungalows south of Hebron, and the Palestinian villagers of nearby Yatta over land rights.

A storehouse in Susiya was burned down three weeks ago, says a settler spokesmen. And a Yatta man complains that Israeli soldiers forcibly evicted him two weeks ago from the cave near the settlement where he always lived during the grazing season.

Bulldozer tracks and jumbled boulders attest to the settlers' destruction of a well and sheep pen beside the cave, while hacked-off olive stumps illustrate how they dealt with efforts by the murdered Al-Nawajah to cultivate his land.

An official of the Susiya settlement, who identified himself only as Zvico, refused to comment on last Friday's incident, saying no settler except the accused man, Baruch Yellin, saw the shooting. A spokesman for the Gush Emunim settler movement, Noam Arnon, said he believed that Mr. Yellin shot in self defense after being attacked with sticks by Palestinians who he had ordered out of the settlement's vicinity.

But Jabar Hawad al-Nawajah, a witness to the death of kinsman Mahmoud, tells a different story.

``On Friday a settler came to me on a horse and told me I had to leave the place with my sheep,'' Jabar Hawad says. ``Then he went back to Susiya. After 15 minutes he returned with an M-16 and began to shoot the sheep,'' killing around a dozen.

Mahmoud came to see what was happening, and was shot in the stomach and died, says Jabar Hawad's son, Mohammed.

Most land around Susiya is privately owned by Palestinian villagers and settlers are encroaching by force, says Mohammed. Yatta farmers were prevented from harvesting their fields near the settlement this year, he says.

``The settlement has no border,'' he says. ``Every year it spreads, each year it is larger than the year before. The settlers want everyone who goes there to feel fear so they will leave and they can conquer it.''

Though such intimidation and illegal settlement would be reversed if landowners complained to the courts, says Palestinian human rights worker Khaled el-Batrawi, this rarely happens.

``All actions by individual settlers are backed by force, by guns,'' says Mr. El-Batrawi, a coordinator for the Al-Haq human rights group. ``If the people have already lost their land, they don't want to lose their lives too.''

The land seizure outside Ramallah is more organized, the result of a decree issued in April by the military governor declaring the area ``a security need.''

Doubts about the government's real intentions, however, have been raised by the fact that four acres of the closed military area have been confiscated outright and leveled, apparently in preparation for a settlement.

The 23 proprietors whose land has been closed off are seeking to have the order reversed before it becomes a full confiscation. The largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, Kiryat Arba, they recall, began with the declaration of a ``closed military area.''

They also fear that a settlement would choke off the last avenue of Palestinian-owned land for Ramallah's expansion, encircling the town completely with Jewish settlements, as has been done in East Jerusalem and Hebron.

Palestinians link the accelerated land grab with the settlement drive in the occupied territories, and the possible prospect of Middle East peace talks.

According to El-Batrawi, ``This is an attempt to confiscate as much as possible so that when any negotiations begin, Israel starts with as much as it can before conceding any reductions.''

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