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Plans to Expand Settlements Spark Controversy with Neighboring Arabs

Palestinian Authority officials warned this week that plans to expand Jewish settlements in the Bethlehem area could bring the peace process to an abrupt halt.

Maintaining that the construction plans violate the self-rule accord, the officials said they would raise the issue before the U.N. Security Council.

At the heart of the dispute is a tract of land atop a rock-covered mountain between the West Bank Jewish settlement of Efrat and the Arab village of Al- Haidr. Residents of Al-Haidr, contending the land belongs to them, have been protesting plans to build a new housing development for Efrat.

Last week, the Arab residents blocked tractors from clearing the site. They resumed their protests early this week, when they were joined by several dozen left-wing Israeli activists for a 24-hour vigil at the site.

On Tuesday, bulldozers resumed work on the new housing development for Efrat after Israeli army officials, declaring the area a closed military zone, evicted the Arab protesters and Israeli peace activists from the site.

There were some minor scuffles when the army attempted to clear the area. Some 44 demonstrators were detained, including 13 Israelis.

Among the protesters was Palestinian Authority official Saeb Erekat, who was pushed to the ground during the scuffles, according to news reports. Police said they would submit a complaint against Erekat for kicking an Israeli soldier.

Erekat, who said this week he had papers proving the land belonged to local Palestinians, later called the site “a graveyard of the peace process.”

Residents of Al-Haidr said they would lose their livelihoods if they lose the mountain.

“If they take this mountain, our village will be dead,” said Hussein Salah. “All our agricultural lands are around the mountains, and we won’t be able to reach them in the future.”

Other Arab communities in the area are protesting similar plans to extend Jewish settlements on nearby lands.

However, Efrat local council head Yinun Ahiman contended that the lands had not been illegally expropriated by Israel. He told Israel Television that private contractors had bought the land to build 500 housing units and that the plan had been approved by the government.

“If they have papers, they can bring their documents to the High Court to prove their rightful ownership,” he said of the Arab residents. “We’ll bring our papers, and the justices will decide.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin said he did not think the dispute over the Efrat construction would halt implementation of the peace accord with the Palestinians.

But he said that any plans to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank “certainly does not fit with the aims of the peace process.”

Environment Minister Yossi Sarid went further, saying that all building at the site should be halted to prevent it from having a negative impact on negotiations with the Palestinians. He said he planned to raise the issue at the next Cabinet meeting.

In a related development, the High Court of Justice heard a petition Monday from journalists who complained that the army was preventing them from covering the dispute.

The journalists said the army has been indiscriminately using its right to close off an area for security reasons and in the process was restricting free press.

At the direction of the justices, the two sides worked out an understanding for future coverage at the construction site.

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