AS Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Cairo seek to expand Palestinian self-rule to major West Bank population centers, Israeli settlers and Palestinian villagers are scrambling to assert their control over key sectors of the territory - particularly in and around the disputed capital of Jerusalem.
A week-long standoff between Jewish construction bulldozers and Palestinian farmers of Al-Khader over a planned 500-home extension of the Jerusalem bedroom suburb of Efrat was only the opening shot in a land war triggered largely by an Israeli drive to settle another 80,000 Jews on expropriated Arab land in Jerusalem and its environs.
While Israel beat a tactical retreat over the neighborhood - opting on Jan. 2 to move the construction to another, more distant hilltop - similar land protests are becoming a key element of Palestinian strategy.
``Al-Khader has become a symbol of peaceful resistance against the settlements,'' says Talha Darweesh, a village teacher. ``We want the peace process to preserve what is left of our land. Otherwise what does peace mean?''
Over the past week, old women, men, and children living alongside Jerusalem bedroom suburbs of Kiryat Sefer, Pisagot, and the Etzion Bloc, have gone out into their fields to sit down in front of bulldozers and plant olive trees on land that has been expropriated, but not yet built upon.
``[Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin cannot solve his problem by moving his bulldozers from one side of the mountain to another,'' Palestinian Minister of Local and Municipal Affairs Saeb Erekat told Reuters. ``The issue we are talking about here is the halt to all settlement activity.'' Mr. Erekat and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's adviser Ahmed Tibi, have been coordinating the demonstrations.
Indeed, the land protests have raised the settlement issue to the top of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating agenda after months in which both sides tried to avoid the intractable topic during the initial stages of the Palestinian self-rule accord in Gaza and Jericho.
Until now, the effort to blur the issue largely succeeded. Language in the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian agreement of principles did not explicitly define policy on Jewish settlements for the five-year interim period of Palestinian self-rule. And Jewish settlements in Gaza were already unified in a relatively well-defined enclave even before the Palestine Liberation Organization took control of Arab areas in Gaza last summer.
In the West Bank, however, often isolated Jewish settlements are peppered between Arab villages with open space in-between still claimed on paper by both sides for future development.
In and around the Jerusalem area, the conflicts are the most profound. Here creeping Israeli and Palestinian urban expansion is eating up scarce open space that both sides view as a resource bank for future generations.
Meanwhile, Israel is overtly supporting massive Jewish suburban expansion as part of a strategy to secure Israeli sovereignty over the capital and its environs in a final peace settlement.
Housing for another 80,000 Israelis is planned or under construction on expropriated Arab land in the metropolitan Jerusalem area, according to the Jerusalem peace institute IrShalem and activists from Peace Now.
Just outside of the city limits, government officials are quietly backing the construction of another 5,000 privately financed Jewish housing units to bolster the ring of suburban settlements.
Already 153,000 Israelis are living on expropriated Arab land inside the Jerusalem city limits, while at least 40,000 people are living in satellite West Bank suburbs within 10 miles of the city.
``There is no question that there are plans to engulf Jerusalem in ever-widening circles of Jewish settlement,'' says Peace Now spokeswoman and Hebrew University professor Galia Golan.
Both Israelis and Palestinians believe that the decisions made in the controversy over Al-Khader will set a precedent for other controversial Jewish building projects in the metropolitan Jerusalem area - and for the Israeli-Palestinian battle over the status of the city itself.