Palestine’s land conflict

Palestine's land conflict #584

FEW Palestinian towns are as tranquil and prosperous as Turmusaya. Red-roofed homes dot the valley and palm trees line the road leading to it, like a resort in Florida, where many of its people now live. With the nearest Jewish settlement hidden beyond the brow of surrounding hills, it almost seems possible to forget the Israeli occupation.

The calm rarely lasts long. On December 10th Israeli soldiers broke up a Palestinian attempt to plant olive trees on land they claim as theirs. In the scuffling and tear-gassing, Ziad Abu Ein, one of the more visible Palestinian officials, collapsed and died. Unlike colleagues who prefer the comfort of government corridors, Mr Abu Ein, a former minister dealing with settlement issues, was often at protests.

At a time of more intense Israeli-Palestinian violence and at the start of a fevered Israeli election campaign—and with no peace talks in prospect—there are fewer checks on an escalation in violence.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, now faces pressure to respond to what his officials call Israel’s “assassination”. From his office in Jordan, where he spends much of his time, he declared three days of mourning. Officials in Ramallah claim he has acted on his threat, made earlier in December, to halt co-ordination between Israel’s army and Palestinian security forces, who act to prevent attacks on Israel and frequently form a buffer between protesters and Israel’s army.

Of late the conflict has been concentrated in cities, particularly Jerusalem. Since the summer, young Palestinians have often clashed at night with Israeli police. The mood turned uglier in the autumn over a campaign by Jewish radicals to establish a right to pray on the grounds of the al-Aqsa mosque. This is Islam’s third-holiest shrine, which stands on the ruins of the former Jewish temple. Palestinians have attacked Israelis with knives or used their cars as weapons. In total ten Palestinians, nine Jews and two Druze have been killed since October 22nd.

The latest death is a reminder that the battle for rural land is also at the heart of the conflict. Along with their expansion of housing, settlers around Turmusaya are expanding the land they use for their agri-businesses.

Human-rights groups accuse Jewish militants of poisoning and uprooting Palestinian olive trees that stand in their way, and of beating their farmers. When farmers try to replant the olive trees, Israeli soldiers bar their path.

In the run-up to Israeli elections, settlers are likely to grow more emboldened as politicians compete for their votes and those of an increasingly right-wing electorate. On December 8th the government approved the transfer of an additional $28m to the settlements. The defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, proudly told settlers near Bethlehem that Israel is building homes in settlements faster than anywhere else. Haaretz, a liberal daily, reported that Israel’s army has mapped 26,000 hectares of West Bank land for possible transfer to settlements. These include 3,500 hectares designated for firing zones, an army category that keeps Palestinians off their land.

Such plans are far from fruition. But polls predict that Jewish Home, a religious party representing settler interests, will come second in the race between a possible 13 parties. Its leader, Naftali Bennett, has already proposed annexing the rural 60% of the West Bank, officially known as Area C, that is under full Israeli control. He is also eyeing the post of defence minister, which would make him in effect the sovereign in the occupied lands of the West Bank. With or without Palestinian security co-ordination, rural communities like Turmusaya will find themselves increasingly on the front line.

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