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Struggle rooted in land

A Palestinian fights in court for a hill his family has held since 1916. Jewish neighbors say the farm should be theirs.

December 27, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

NAHALIN, WEST BANK — From his hilltop farm, Daoud Nassar can see the sun rise over the Jordan Valley and set in the Mediterranean, an arc that spans the territorial breadth of his people's conflict with Israel.

He also can see the neighbors whose rival claim has drawn the idyllic 100-acre plot deeply into that fight.

The only large Palestinian property to occupy high ground in this part of the West Bank, it is ringed by expanding Jewish settlements and coveted by the one perched on the nearest hill, 800 yards away.

For nearly a generation, Nassar and his family have stood their ground, unarmed, against pistol-toting settlers who have barricaded the farm's dirt lanes, uprooted its olive groves, tried to bulldoze their own roads and disabled a tractor and a rooftop water tank.

The family has rebuffed anonymous Jewish callers offering blank checks for the property, and spent $145,000 in a marathon legal battle to keep the land that Nassar's grandfather, a Christian from Lebanon, bought in 1916 when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. For more than 90 years, Nassars have worked the land, growing almonds, figs, grapes, olives, pears and pomegranates.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 17, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 86 words Type of Material: Correction
Mideast land dispute: An Dec. 27 article in Section A about a land dispute in the West Bank between Jewish settlers and a Palestinian family stated that the Kfar Etzion kibbutz established by Jews was overrun by Jordan's Arab Legion on the next-to-last day of Israel's 1948 war of independence. In fact, it was overrun by Jordan's Arab Legion in 1948 the day before Israel's declaration of independence, which set off a wider invasion by Arab armies that unsuccessfully challenged the birth of the Jewish state.

The feuding over these stark hills, ridges and valleys south and east of Bethlehem, a 27-square-mile region that includes the Nassar farm, is emblematic of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- a struggle rooted in land.

To open the way to peace talks that resumed this month after a seven-year hiatus, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to refrain from authorizing new settlements in the West Bank. But he said he would not prevent the "natural growth" of settlements such as the ones in this region, which Jews call Gush Etzion, on land Israel expects to keep under a final peace accord.

"The Israelis want this whole area. Their plan is to force as many of us as possible to leave," said Nassar, a square-jawed man of 37 with a calm, hopeful disposition and a mop of curly dark hair. "But we have to encourage people, empower them, to stay."

The struggle over his hundred acres, a drama both intimate and epic, has consumed Nassar's adult life and reached what could prove to be its final act.

"It is our land, and our land is like our mother," he said. "I cannot abandon or sell my mother."

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From the Jewish settlement of Neve Daniel, Shaul Goldstein can see the Nassars' farmhouse across a narrow valley. He stops his car on a ridge where workmen are building $500,000 white stone villas with sloping red tile roofs for the settlement's newcomers.

"In my view, Israel from the Mediterranean to the Jordan Valley is a Jewish state," said Goldstein, 48, a mechanical engineer and air force veteran who is mayor of a group of settlements that form the Gush Etzion Regional Council. "Its lands are earmarked first and foremost for Jewish citizens."

Goldstein is a tall, energetic and articulate defender of the settler movement and one of its more moderate leaders. He boasts of "very good relations" with his construction company's Palestinian employees and most of his Palestinian neighbors, and says they must be accommodated in what he calls the land of Israel.

But he complains that his initiatives to cooperate with Palestinian village mayors on issues such as earthquake preparedness and water purification have been vetoed by the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. He depicts the Nassar family's legal battle, which blocks his settlement's expansion, as an example of the same rejectionist stance.

"It is very difficult to make coexistence and civil relations with people who consider themselves part of a society that declared war against you," Goldstein said.

Israel says it has a special claim to this part of the West Bank, dating to David's biblical kingdom.

A Jewish community flourished here until the Roman era and was reestablished in the 1940s as the Kfar Etzion kibbutz on land purchased the previous decade. But it was overrun by Jordan's Arab Legion on the next-to-last day of Israel's 1948 war for independence, a battle in which Goldstein's father fought.

The community was again revived in 1967, becoming the first settlement on land captured from Jordan in the Middle East War that year -- and a symbol of the Zionist dream of restoring biblical Israel.

Since then, Israel has vastly expanded the kibbutz's pre-1948 holdings by seizing agricultural land from long-settled Palestinians and turning it over to Jewish settlers, a practice replicated across the West Bank.

Although that practice is widely viewed as a violation of international law, it is codified in Israel's legal system. A military committee identifies coveted land it deems un-owned or unused and declares it "state land." Any Palestinian with a claim has 45 days to appeal to a military court.

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