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Peres Accused of Sell-out in Settling Land Dispute with Druze

A land dispute with Druze villagers in Galilee that erupted in violence last Monday was settled to the villagers’ satisfaction through the intervention of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

The arrangement appears to have won the Labor Party the support of Israel’s 75,000 Druze, at least for the time being. Peres was accused by Likud and some Laborites of selling out the Mt. Meron Nature Sanctuary for political advantage.

One Likud politician, Mayor Eli Landau of Herzliya, was so incensed that he created one of Israel’s worst traffic jams Thursday as a gesture of protest. He ordered heavy trucks from his municipality to block the main Tel Aviv-Haifa highway, causing traffic to back up for several miles. It lasted 45 minutes.

“I blocked the road to protest against the shameful behavior of the Druze,” Landau told police who came to try to unravel the jam. He also handed them flowers and insisted that he, not the truck drivers, was solely responsible.

The Association of Local Government Authorities and several mayors denounced Landau’s action. The police said they were “looking into” it.

Residents of the Druze village of Beit Jahn claimed ownership of 3,000 acres of the nature preserve. Recently they illegally erected a tent encampment there. Park rangers, escorted by police, dismantled the encampment July 6 and were attacked by hundreds of chain-and-club-wielding Druze. Six rangers, 23 policemen and six villagers were injured, and 20 vehicles belonging to the police and the Nature Reserves Authority were damaged. A forest ranger’s hut was ransacked.

Police declared Thursday they would prosecute the Druze responsible for the attack. But most of the villagers’ demands were met. Peres, Agriculture Minister Arye Nehamkin, Energy Minister Moshe Shahal and Ezer Weizman, all Laborites, told Druze leaders at a meeting at the Knesset that the villagers may now cultivate land in the nature reserve previously barred to them.

Sheikh Amin Tarif, leader of the Druze community, praised Peres as a great leader who is fit to head any Israeli government. “This statement by the Sheikh is worth at least one mandate in the elections,” a Druze journalist commented afterwards.

But others thought the price was too high. Uri Baidatz head of the Nature Reserves Authority, said, “This is a dark day for nature lovers, a victory for violence and deceit.” He said the Authority would do whatever it could to nullify the agreement.

Likud politicians denounced it. So did Laborite Nissim Zvilli, head of the Jewish Agency’s Settlements Department. He urged both Labor and Likud to stop trying to make political gains at the expense of the State.

Likud Minister Moshe Arens, who is in charge of the affairs of minority groups in Israel, has also been wooing the Druze. He visited Beit Jahn recently with a promise to try to return more of the disputed land. Peres apparently outbid him. But apart from the issue of political gain, many Israelis feared that the dispute with the Beit Jahn villagers could spread to the 18 other Druze villages in Galilee.

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