Land claim unsettles Israeli settlers

Peace Now says 40 percent of West Bank settlements sit on private Palestinian land.

For a fraction of the price of his former Jerusalem flat, Victor Sonino purchased a three-bedroom apartment just blocks from his grandchildren in this fast-growing suburb – the largest settlement in the West Bank.

But walking 5-year-old Eden home from nursery school past rows of high-rise apartment buildings, Mr. Sonino is quick to correct the language of a visitor: "This isn't a settlement. It's Jerusalem."

Sonino's comment reflects an assumption by the Israeli public – and possibly foreign peace negotiators – that the Maaleh Adumim should be annexed as part of the Jewish state because of its sheer size and proximity a few miles to the east of Israel's capital.

That expectation may have been undermined last week when a report by the dovish Peace Now group stated that Palestinian private land accounts for more than one-third of the settlements, and that for Maaleh Adumim the proportion is a startling 86 percent. That's at odds with decades-old government and settler statements that only public lands were being used for building in territory captured during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

The US and most countries consider Maaleh Adumim and dozens of other Israeli settlements illegal under international law because they were established on territory under military occupation. But a 2004 letter by President Bush to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seemed to acknowledge that redrawing the border between Palestinians and Israelis was preferable to dismantling large settlements like the 34,000-person city of Maaleh Adumim.

"They've put a stain on us," says Maaleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel, who dismisses the Peace Now report and insists that only a few small islands of Palestinian real estate lie within the settlement – and have been left untouched.

"I don't want there to be international delegitimization for this city," he says, explaining why he's considering a libel suit against Peace Now. "Today, Maaleh Adumim is not only in the national consensus, it's in the international consensus."

Few would agree with the mayor's statement in the neighboring Palestinian village of Al Azariyeh, where municipal councilors show British Mandate-era maps designating the land as part of the village. Many landowners, such as Ibrahim Farhoun, say they once used to use the bald hilltops where Maaleh Adumim now sits to cultivate lentils and wheat crops.

Soon after the 1967 war, the people of Al Azariyeh were told by the Israeli army that they could no longer reach the lands to the east of the village because it had been declared a closed military zone. By the 1970s, the first Israelis were building a fledgling settlement named Maaleh Adumim.

"They confiscated the land which I once used to make a living. I was overwhelmed with bitterness," says Ibrahim Faroun. "How would you feel if someone put up a mobile home on your house," he says, referring to the first dwellings used by the settlers.

Offering a list of incentives to Palestinians during a memorial service Monday for Israel's founding prime minister, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israel would agree to establish a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity in the West Bank.

And even though that requires dismantling many of the settlements in the West Bank, it is a safe assumption that Mr. Olmert wasn't referring to Maaleh Adumim, one of three settlement "blocs" which Israel wants to hold on to.

Israeli negotiators have suggested trading uninhabited tracts of Israeli land to compensate the Palestinians for building that is considered internationally as a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits countries from moving their citizens into territory under occupation.

But offering the first-ever assessment of property ownership in the West Bank with the help of an anonymous whistle-blower from inside the Israeli military, the Peace Now report may shift the focus of the long-standing dispute to the microclaims of individual Palestinians who say their lands were stolen.

In Israel, the report could be a new blow to the Jewish settlers and the government, painting a picture of lawlessness regarding the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, whose population now numbers about 250,000. While public opinion was in favor of last year's evacuation of settlers from Gaza, support for places like Maaleh Adumim is strong.

"Each additional piece of information adds to the weight of public opinion. Its likely to be another factor in the political debate," says Gershon Gorenberg, who authored a history of the first decade of Israeli settlement expansion. "The great irony is as the settlements continue to grow, their support among the public continues to shrink. I would assume that at some point the tension between the two things will set off a political shift."

While Israeli officials have withheld comment, saying they need to study the report, Yariv Oppenheimer, a spokesman for Peace Now says he hopes the findings would prevent continuing settlement expansion. "We hope that from now on it will be much harder to continue to build even one road," he says.

As for Sonino, the grandfather, he says he doubts the veracity of the Peace Now claims. But if it had been proven true, before making the apartment purchase, he said he might have decided otherwise. "I have paper that says I bought it from the government," he says. "They never said this place didn't belong to Israel. If I knew, I would have never come here."

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