Despite claims to the contrary, the Sharon government has apparently endorsed plans to create at least one large Jewish settlement south of Jerusalem and significantly expand several existing ones. Khaled Amayreh reports......
According to Israel's Hebrew-language press, the Israeli housing ministry plans to build a new Jewish settlement that would include 6,000 flats in an area between Bethlehem and Hebron. The new settlement, to be called Giva'ot, would be inhabited by members of the "national-religious camp," considered among the most racist and virulently anti-Arab Israelis. If built, the new settlement would further truncate the southern part of the West Bank, bisecting it into two main enclaves -- Hebron and Bethlehem -- cut off from each other and from the Ramallah region in central West Bank.
In addition to the planned settlement, a Jerusalem municipal committee has approved new plans to build another 3,000 apartments on confiscated Arab land at Jabal Abu Ghneim, or Har Homa, as it is referred to by Israelis. The Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak governments previously constructed hundreds of settler units at Jabal Abu Ghneim, on Jerusalem's southern outskirts, mainly for the purpose of completing the chain of Jewish settlements around occupied East Jerusalem.
The political aim of the planned settlement, as is the case with other settlements, is unmistakably clear, namely to render impossible the return of land to Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the grabbing of Palestinian land by armed Jewish settlers continued unabated throughout the West Bank. Palestinian sources reported this week that settlers were seizing land in the vicinity of their settlements and cordoning it off with barbed wire, with the tacit approval of the Israeli army.
The occupation army itself confiscated a large expanse of Palestinian farmland adjacent to the former armistice line of 1967 in Hebron last week. The owners of the land, poor peasants from the nearby village of Beit Kahel, staged a sit-in on their property on 26 March to protest the illegal seizure. However, Israeli soldiers stationed at the site forcibly vacated the villagers, threatening to shoot them if they did not disperse.
Israeli army bulldozers were similarly busy this week, pulverising Palestinian vineyards and olive orchards south of the town of Dura, 16km southwest of Hebron. The Israeli army is opening yet another bypass road there that would link the tiny settlement of Otnael, inhabited by no more than 30 settler families, with inter-city roads in southern Israel, more than 24km away.
As the expansion of settlements continues, so do the often murderous attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinian civilians throughout the occupied territories. On 23 March, the bludgeoned body of 44-year-old Jabri Abu Ras of Dura was found dumped outside the Jewish settlement of Halmish, north of Ramallah. Palestinian hospital sources in Ramallah said Abu Ras, a father of five, was shot several times in the chest and head before his skull was crushed by stones. His relatives affirmed that they had no doubt whatsoever that settlers committed the gruesome crime.
On 16 March, settlers from Navi Yaccoub, north of Jerusalem, reportedly murdered a 10-year-old Palestinian child who was playing soccer near the settlement, using very similar methods.
In neither case did the Israeli occupation authorities arrest settlers or even launch an investigation. In fact, far from seriously investigating the two murders, an Israeli police spokesman simply claimed that the Palestinian Authority was behind the murders, an assertion scoffed at by Palestinians.
Apart from their increasingly frequent, murderous attacks, settlers continued to carry out wanton acts of vandalism against Palestinian civilians, often in full view of Israeli soldiers.
Earlier this week, Israeli human rights group B'Tselem accused the Israeli army of tolerating and tacitly encouraging settler violence against innocent and unprotected Palestinians. The report stressed that the settlers' vandalism against Palestinians and their property "occur against a background of leniency and prolonged impotence of Israeli law-enforcement authorities."
According to the report, settler violence takes many forms, including firing at Palestinian civilian neighbourhoods, killing and wounding Palestinian civilians, shooting and throwing stones at Palestinian cars, damaging property, uprooting trees, burning a mosque, harming Palestinian medical teams, attacking journalists and preventing farmers from reaching their fields.
The report mentioned two telling facts only too well known to Palestinians. First, Israeli soldiers and police officers are often present when settlersattack Palestinians but do absolutely nothing to stop them. Indeed, in many cases, the report said, the soldiers respond "derisively" to Palestinian appeals for assistance against settler violence. Second, settler violence against Palestinians is most often not investigated, with two-thirds of cases being closed.
But the plague of Jewish settlers is not confined to violent acts. On 26 March, as much as 3.5 million cubic metres of partially treated sewage waters from the Jewish settlement of Nahal Oz, east of Gaza, deluge several Arab neighbourhoods in Gaza City, causing an environmentaldisaster. An Israeli water storage facility at the settlement apparently broke down (or was deliberately broken), inundating much of the Shujaiya neighbourhood. The flood reportedly caused heavy damage to houses as well as to farmland and livestock in the area. Palestinian officials estimated the damage and losses in the tens of millions of dollars. One Palestinian official remarked, "The Israelis have introduced a new weapon against us."