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Stage Is Set for Next Skirmish Over Settlements

Israel: Plans for a 40,000-unit Jerusalem housing project pit Jews against Palestinians.


UM TUBA, Israel — When Benjamin Netanyahu stood beside President Clinton in Washington earlier this month and declared his intent to develop Jewish settlements, the Israeli leader's voice reverberated through the craggy hills of the West Bank and the crannies of East Jerusalem.

The new prime minister's words rang pleasantly in the ears of Pinhas Wallerstein, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. After four years of butting heads with the former Labor government, the settler leader felt vindicated. "I heard what Bibi said to Clinton, and for me it was like a good concert," Wallerstein said with a satisfied smile. "We're not in the opposition anymore."

But the expansionist policy that gives renewed legitimacy to settlers on lands that Israel captured in 1967 sounded more like a declaration of war to Palestinian leaders. They heard in Netanyahu's words a bold contradiction of U.S. policy and a violation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, which leave the fate of Jewish settlements, as well as East Jerusalem, for final negotiations. Netanyahu, they said, was making unilateral decisions that augur a new period of confrontation between Palestinians and Jews over land.

"Peace and settlements are two poles of a magnet that can never meet," the Palestinian Authority said in a statement. "Those who choose settlements definitely do not want peace."

The first conflict could well ignite in Um Tuba, a Palestinian village whose goats, chickens and pastoral setting belie the fact that it is within the boundaries of Jerusalem. Here, on a pine-covered hill forested by the Jewish National Fund, Israel plans to build the 40,000-unit Har Homa housing development, which undoubtedly would become home to Jews only.

Palestinians call the hill by its Arabic name, Abu Ghniem, and view this project as a "settlement," although Israelis reserve that term for West Bank communities. In this rocky, back end of Jerusalem, there is no clear demarcation between the city Israel considers its capital and the West Bank.

Palestinians say the proposed development is politically motivated, with its backers seeking to increase the Jewish population of East Jerusalem--and, therefore, Israel's claim to the territory--and to further separate Palestinians in East Jerusalem from Palestinians in the West Bank.

Israelis say Har Homa is meant to meet growing demand for housing in their undivided capital. The project is to be built on a combination of Jewish-owned property and land confiscated from Palestinians in Um Tuba--the proportions of which vary according to the source.

Palestinians and Jewish activists from the Israeli peace group Ir-Shalem have stalled the development for five years with court challenges to the expropriations. But they appear to be at the end of the legal line and expect ground to be broken any day.

"When the first bulldozer comes here, we will confront it," said Ali Abu Tair, an Um Tuba landowner who has been fighting Har Homa in court. "You cannot understand the anger I feel."

Ghassan Andoni, an activist at the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement Between Peoples in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, added: "The issue here is not only one of ownership. It is that the decision on the sovereignty and future of the land cannot be made from one side."

The Palestinians want an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with its capital in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War. In the 1970s and 1980s, Labor and Likud governments encouraged development of West Bank settlements, particularly on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Although some Israelis moved there simply to take advantage of cheap housing, most settlers view themselves as flag-bearers of Judaism and Zionism. They call the West Bank by its biblical name of Judea and Samaria and believe that the land was given to Jews by God and so must remain in Jewish hands. In their view, the more than 1 million Palestinians who live there should acquiesce to Jewish rule or leave.

Under a previous Likud government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, with Ariel Sharon as housing minister, the settler population grew rapidly at the expense of relations with the U.S. government, which views settlements as an obstacle to peace.

The late Yitzhak Rabin, the Labor Party's successor to Shamir, froze government funding for settlement construction in 1992 and, in 1993, negotiated the historic land-for-peace accord with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Under that and subsequent accords, the Gaza Strip and six of the seven West Bank cities were turned over to Palestinian autonomous rule. Israeli troops pulled out of 400 or so Palestinian villages but retained the right to reenter them for security reasons.

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