AS far as the Palestinian villagers of Beit Iksa are concerned, this week's Middle East peace talks in Washington might as well be happening on another planet.The platoon of Israeli soldiers who turned up here Dec. 9 and proceeded to tear out the olive tree seedlings the farmers were planting was a much more pressing reality. Nor are the negotiations between Israel and her Arab neighbors much consolation to Jamil Ahmed al-Abassi, a resident of the Silwan district of East Jerusalem, who has been sharing a cramped room with a friend for the past two months since Jewish settlers seized his home in a nighttime raid. The Israeli Cabinet decided Dec. 8 that the settlers may move permanently into Mr. Abassi's house. Meanwhile, 40 miles to the north, Jewish settlers have won official blessing to join an Army outpost on the road to Nablus, establishing the West Bank's newest settlement near Tepuah, at the site of a Palestinian ambush of a bus six weeks ago.
A continuing policy The events at Beit Iksa, Silwan, and Tepuah illustrate the continuing Israeli policy of land seizure and Jewish settlement in the occupied territories that Palestinians say casts doubt on the government's proclaimed desire for peace. "With these moves they are trying to provoke us to leave the negotiating room," says Palestinian leader Faisal al-Husseini bitterly. "We won't do that, but we won't make their lives easy." The Israeli government insists it will not give up the occupied territories even for peace and says it is offering the Palestinians autonomy in personal affairs but not control over land or water. In 1967, says local landowner Taisir Saef, Beit Iksa farmers owned some 3,600 acres of the hilly land around their village just north of Jerusalem and used it to plant crops, grow vines, figs and olives, or graze their animals. In successive seizures based on claims that the land was not being cultivated, the Israeli authorities have confiscated over three quarters of the property the villagers say is theirs. The results are evident: Ranks of apartment buildings on nearby hilltops house Jewish commuters who work in Jerusalem. Any hopes that the Madrid peace conference might halt or slow this steady erosion of village holdings were dashed Nov. 12, when the region's military governor warned Beit Iksa farmers to stay off more than 100 acres of land that the government intended to declare "state land" and confiscate. Some 40 farmers defied that decree Dec. 9, according to Mr. Saef, marking out their individual holdings with stakes, and planting olive seedlings. Israeli soldiers then moved onto the land, villagers complained, uprooting all the plants, and forcing the men to strip to the waist as they stood in the chill winter wind. "They have taken almost all our land," lamented Ahmed Hussein Zaed, one of the farmers whose land is threatened. "If they take this piece, they will clear Beit Iksa from the map." "We need peace with the Israelis because they are our neighbors. We are not enemies of Israel," added Saef. "But in this way there will never be peace." Mohammed, a resident of Silwan who preferred not to give his full name, expressed similar sentiments as he commiserated with the now homeless Abassi. "The Israelis don't want peace," he argued. "They say they want it, but when it comes, in Madrid, they show that they don't. They occupy our houses, they make life bad for us." Abassi said he has not been allowed into his house, even to retrieve his clothes, by the soldiers stationed on his porch since Jewish settlers claiming to have leased the property broke into it before dawn on Oct. 9, along with four other houses. Settlers are currently occupying only one of those homes, while soldiers guard the rest, pending a decision by the attorney general on the legality of the settlers' leases. Abassi says he discovered last year that his home, owned by his uncle, had been registered as unoccupied in 1967, when Israel took over East Jerusalem, and passed on to the Housing Ministry. The ministry appears to have leased the house to the settlers.
Legal occupation But the house was empty at the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war only because the family had fled to Jordan to escape the fighting, according to Abassi, and they returned when life was calm. The Israeli Cabinet ruled Dec. 8 that setters should be allowed to move into houses they have leased legally, on condition that they advise the police of their intentions beforehand. The government has also granted permission to civilian settlers to pitch two tents, housing 15 people, next to an outpost established by the Army's settlement brigade near Tepuah six weeks ago after an ambush on a bus full of settlers in which two passengers were killed. Tobah Frankel, who helped organize a vigil at the spot, says the tents mark the founding of a new settlement. "We don't regard this as a memorial vigil any more," she said. "This is an adjunct to the Nahal [Army] outpost. This is the beginning of a settlement." Such actions, Palestinian leader Husseini argues, strike at the heart of the peace process. "The main problem is the relationship between the man and the land," he says. "The Israelis want to divide the man from the land ... to say, 'You are just guests here, you should take what we want you to take. The continuing land seizures and settlement activities, he warns, are undermining his efforts to reach a peaceful solution, and strengthening those radical Palestinians who oppose the peace process. "They can prove we are wrong, that we have no credibility and cannot lead a peaceful struggle, and we will be forced to leave the flag to those who don't want this way," he says. "People who all their life have had a gun will reach for it."