UPI: “The West Bank: This Land is Whose Land?”

October 11, 1979


October 11, 1979


ANATA, Israeli-occupied West bank (UPI) — Abdesalaam Salameh and Benny Katzover, Arab and Jew, believe their land is their life.

The problem is, they mean the same land — the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River.

Salameh and Katzover are among those who live in the shadow of international power politics over Palestinian rights and Israel’s ultimate plan for what it refers to as Judea and Samaria, the area captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.

They live in the cultivated hills and valleys, olive groves and inhospitable rock heaps. This land is called “my land” by 700,000 Arabs and 10,000 Jews, most of them religious pioneers embarked on a government-endorsed eastward movement.

A political solution to the conflict concerns these men a lot less than “land under my feet,” as Salameh puts it.

Their sentiments are representative, as conversations with many West Bank residents attest.

Salameh is 67, mukhtar or head man of Anata, a village of 3,500 Arabs just north of Jerusalem. He has two court battles going against the Israelis over land seized from his family and the village.

Katzover, a wiry 32-year-old, heads the secretariat of the Jewish settlement of Elon Moreh, a rockbound hilltop within putting distance of Nablus, the West Bank’s major Arab town. Seventeen Arab landowners on whose 200 acres (80 ha) the settlement is being built are fighting in Israel’s Supreme Court to get their land back.

Israel has 51 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, most authorized by the government but some legalized only after religious radicals defiantly squatted. One settlement, Shiloh, was erected under the thin guise of being an archeological dig.

The United States has protested every Israeli decision to build or expand settlements, saying the outposts are illegal under international law because the territory is militarily occupied and thus are obstacles to peace. Egypt agrees with Washington’s position.

The international uproar over Israeli settlement policy has not stemmed construction of new outposts. Now local Arabs have taken up the cudgel and are trying to use Israel’s own courts to halt Jewish sodbusters.

Salameh, his white cotton shirt too tight at the belly, sat commandingly on the porch of his imposing stone house.

“Instead of this occupying power preserving and protecting the people who are occupied, they are acting like butchers — taking the meat of the sheep and giving it to other people,” he said.

Salameh said the military government in 1979 requisitioned 1,162 acres of Anata land, the bulk of it his. It includes a residential area of 40 houses. Salameh went to court and the military ended up taking only 350 acres (140 ha) — not including the houses or Salameh’s water source.

Israeli officials said the land will be used for a “military camp,” a loose definition. Some civilian settlements were born as military outposts.

Another 1,750 acres (705 ha) Salameh said belongs to the village — the Israelis say it belongs to the state — is earmarked for the Jewish settlment of Meale Adumin B.

“This land was inherited from our fathers and grandfathers,” Salameh said.

To underscore the point, his 90-year-old father, the former mukhtar who was born in the village, produced his birth certificate, issued when the area was ruled by the Ottoman Turks before they lost it in World War I.

“If they offered me a million (Jordanian) dinars ($3 million) for the land they took, I wouldn’t accept it,” Salameh said. “We will never give up.”

The generations argument doesn’t impress Katzover.

Looking out over the dusty jumble of trailers and colorful playground equipment at Elon Moreh, 30 miles (50 km) north of Anata, Katzover explained why the stalwart band of Jewish settlers — 15 families with 60 children — staked their claim to the hilltop. They waited six years for government permission.

“Elon Moreh and all the Jewish connection to this land was near Nablus,” he said. “This is the first place Abraham stopped — in Canaan. This is where God promised to give the land to all Israel.”

“No country in the world has a connection to their land like the Jews do to this land. If we want o belong to Israel, and we do, then we settle here.”

The Arab roots to the West Bank, he said, are “a new connection.”

“Most of them came from Syria or Lebanon or Saudi Arabia or the Galilee. Their roots here are a joke. It’s just an excuse to try to make us go.”

The government is arguing the Elon Moreh case on security grounds, saying the site is needed as a defensive outpost overlooking several thoroughfares into major Israeli cities.

Katzover gladly will climb up to the lookout point and explain its importance. But he said without apology it has no influence on his decision to be there.

“We didn’t demand to settle at this particular spot,” he said. “We demanded only to be as near Nablus as possible.”

“The Supreme Court argument is not about a real issue,” he said. “They are judging only if the security reason for our being allowed to settle here is valid. We think they need to judge what are the rights of the Jews to live here.”

Lawyers for the case disagree and stick to the security argument.

If they lose, it would be the first civilian court challenge to what the military has declared a security need.

And, as in the case with Salameh’s land, a military necessity in occupied territory is always justified, even under international law.

If Katzover loses?

“I don’t think the government will make us go,” he said. “They will then just have to explain all the reasons (for doing so) and take the land for reasons of the public good.”

He paused.

“We won’t give up this land. It’s now a place where Jews live.”

The World Zionist Organization has responsibility for enacting the government’s settlement decisions in the occupied territories. It provides construction workers, ironically, most of them Arabs, equipment and funding for the sites.

WZO Settlement spokesman Ze’ev Ben Youssef thinks Arab disgruntlement with the Israelis is a short-term problem.

“Many of them, maybe, see us as a nation from which they will get a state of their own,” he said.

“When they understand they cannot get it, that they will be forever with the Jews in the State of Israel, they will begin to live like every minority lives, “like the Welsh or the Irish.”

He cited a master plan for settlement produced by the head of his department, Mattiyahu Droubles. It calls for Jewish settlements to be set up “not only around the settlements of the minorities, but also in between them . . . over the course of time, we will have to learn to live with them . . . and they with us.”

Salameh lamented. He can only see the Israelis chipping away at the Arab character of the place where he was born.

The Israeli government permits Jews to purchase private land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Jewish settlers of the ultranationalist Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) movement are agitating to get the government to reverse its policy and permit their communities to expand onto nearby private Arab property.

“This is the plan the authorities are now following,” Salameh said. “They are taking away land from the owners and giving it to people from all over the world.”

Ben Youssef said no. Except in isolated cases, the requisitioned lands are “wild rocky areas that do not belong to anyone and where no Arabs are settled. We can live there together.”

Rocky or not, settled or not, owned or not, Salameh would say that wasteland belongs to him.

“Okay,” Ben Youssef conceded. “It’s his desert. But just what he owns. Just what he owns.”