Relentless land grabs in the occupied West Bank

The Holy Land last week witnessed one more act of violence. The event accelerated the slide toward a complete breakdown of relations between Israelis and Palestinians and the start of a third intifada. In the tumultuous climate of today's Middle East, a Palestinian uprising would hold ominous repercussions for the region and the world, but most of all for the Palestinians themselves.

On Dec. 10, a senior Palestinian minister, Ziad Abu Ain, collapsed and died of a heart attack after an Israeli border guard grabbed and throttled him by the throat. Before he succumbed, Abu Ain, who suffered from a weak heart, was struck in the chest by another guard and disabled when he inhaled tear gas.

Immediately, Israelis and Palestinians put forth conflicting interpretations of the cause of death. Whether the blows inflicted on Abu Ain in combination with the tear gas inhalation were the primary or secondary causes of Abu Ain's heart attack, it is pretty clear he would still be alive if he had not endured them.

The minister's death was a reminder that the battle for rural land in the occupied West Bank is at the heart of the conflict. Working hand in glove, the Israeli military and Israeli settlers are steadily confiscating and expropriating Palestinian land for settlement expansion. Settlers forcefully take over Palestinian land in the West Bank, the state sends the military to uphold the land grab, and troops forcefully silence protest against the move -- often at a lethal price.

On Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, Abu Ain had joined Palestinian farmers from the village of Turmusaya, north of Ramallah, in a nonviolent demonstration. They were protesting to regain access to their land. While the circumstances of Abu Ain's death may be in dispute, the motivation for the demonstration and the way Israeli security forces handle Palestinian protests is all too familiar.

Since the establishment of the Israeli settler outpost Adei Ad east of their village in late 1998, the villagers have been barred from accessing their land. Such settlement outposts, which are officially unauthorized and illegal according to Israeli law, not to mention international law, are yet another means by which Israel has conspired to take over land in the West Bank, excluding Palestinians from extensive areas there.

Although portrayed as the action of extremist settlers, a report by Yesh Din, an Israeli organization working to defend Palestinian rights, demonstrates that the establishment of these outposts is in fact a state enterprise assisted by all government bodies. B'Tselem, the well-regarded Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, also published a report detailing the implementation of this policy in the West Bank.

The Palestinian protest was carried out in conjunction with a petition to the Israeli High Court for the evacuation of the Adei Ad outpost, filed by the Turmusaya residents through Yesh Din. As in other cases, the decision to demonstrate to regain access to the land was only made after all other avenues -- including letters to authorities, legal action, involvement of international actors and media reports -- had been exhausted over the course of 16 years. None of these efforts helped the landowners reclaim their property, nor did they improve the conditions of Palestinian communities harmed by the existence and expansion of the outpost.

Any form of Palestinian protest against the Israeli occupation, even when it is entirely nonviolent, is considered illegal under Israeli emergency laws applied only to West Bank Palestinians. Israeli security forces are authorized to disperse any Palestinian demonstration, even when the participants are nonviolent. In dispersing these demonstrations, the Israeli military uses stun grenades, tear gas grenades and "skunk" liquid. When some demonstrators respond with stones, as they sometimes do, the Israeli military responds with deadly fire.

Israeli security forces also arrest, beat and prosecute Palestinian demonstration organizers and participants. Needless to say, these measures are seldom taken against Israeli settlers, who have sometimes even physically attacked Israeli soldiers in the very rare instances when action is taken against them.

At the start of a fevered Israeli election campaign, no peace talks are in prospect. There are fewer checks on an inevitable escalation in violence on the West Bank. Outsiders can only hope that Palestinian patience during the campaign season will inspire Israeli voters to support more moderate and conciliatory leaders who will resist the settlers' land grab for the sake of a long-term peace.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

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