BIDDYA, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — The scene on the enclosed porch of Mustafa Khamdan's house here in the rocky, West Samarian hills grew increasingly chaotic as the almost-toothless, 80-year-old patriarch described to a visiting reporter what he called an elaborate plot to steal his land for Jewish settlement.
As word of the visitor's presence spread through this Arab village of 8,000 people, members of Khamdan's extended family showed up, along with several neighbors who had their own stories of alleged land fraud. Soon dozens were gathered, all trying to speak at once in a babble of English, Hebrew and Arabic.
The excitement on Khamdan's porch reflects Biddya's role in a potentially far-reaching Israeli scandal touched off when some forged government documents involving private land sales were found in the home of an accused Jewish counterfeiter late last month.
The discovery has spotlighted a politically charged investigation of West Bank land fraud dating back at least to 1979.
The scope of any wrongdoing is still not known, but a top Justice Ministry official said that about 200 cases of alleged irregularities are under investigation by a special 13-member police team. And, according to reports in the Israeli media, as many as 500 additional complaints have piled up.
"It's like an onion--you just peel it and peel it," said Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem. He heads the West Bank Data Project, a program supported by the American Enterprise Institute, a private research group based in Washington, to monitor land use in the occupied territories.
Both Arabs and Jews have been victimized by the fraudulent land sales, and both Arabs and Jews are accused of illegal activity.
The mukhtar (headman) of Biddya is one of at least nine men--Jews and Arabs--already in jail in connection with the investigation. Another is the Arab dealer to whom Khamdan supposedly sold six acres of land.
Khamdan contends that he had no intention of selling his land and that his signature on the sales contract was forged. An Israeli handwriting expert said his analysis backs up Khamdan's contention.
Rightist Israeli politicians, who were in power during most of the time that the questionable land sales occurred, said the problem is being intentionally blown out of proportion. Their opponents are engaged in a "witch hunt" meant to embarrass them and to undermine Jewish settlement of the West Bank, they argue.
Even some Palestinian Arabs agree that publicity surrounding the case is being manipulated for Israeli political motives.
No Officials Implicated
No current or former government officials are known to have been criminally implicated so far. Pliah Albeck, the Justice Ministry official in charge of verifying all West Bank property sales, insisted in an interview that no existing Jewish settlement in the occupied territories is built on dishonestly acquired land.
However, by some estimates as much as 25% of land earmarked for future settlement may be involved. And, whatever its ultimate political and criminal ramifications, the land scandal has exposed what several Israeli commentators call a "Wild West" atmosphere surrounding West Bank land dealings--particularly since a 1979 government decision allowed private Jewish citizens to buy land in the occupied territories.
"Most of the land deals in the area are rooted in forgery, deceit, pressures and threats," charged Yossi Sarid, a leftist member of the Knesset (Parliament), during a news conference last week.
10 Killings Reported
According to Benvenisti, 10 killings since 1979 have been linked to land scams. A Biddya man was shot to death and two others were wounded by border police two years ago when a village protest against what residents called illegal Jewish development of their land turned violent.
Police suspect arson was involved in a Nablus courthouse fire late last year that destroyed hundreds of files connected with alleged West Bank land-sale irregularities. And the rightist newspaper Maariv reported last week that a police investigation into official leaks concerning Arab land for sale in the West Bank was shelved after "highly placed" interference.
Justice Ministry official Albeck said, "Out of land offered for sale by Arabs to Jews, more than 90% are attempts at fraud--people trying to sell land that does not belong to them."
The land scandal occurs against the backdrop of a national struggle in which both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews attribute an almost mystical importance to these rocky hills and fertile valleys.
To the Arabs, the land is a symbol of status, a source of sustenance and the ultimate measure of their battle for a homeland on territory captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Rafik Halabi, an Israeli Arab journalist and author of a book about the West Bank, recalls his father's two commandments to him: "Do not sell your land, and protect your sister's honor."