As Peace Conference Begins, Palestinians Fear Land-Grab in Progress
This week in Annapolis, Maryland the United States government is hosting a conference between Palestinian and Israeli leaders to launch peace talks on a permanent agreement. A vital component of the peace proposals involves exchanges of territory that would allow Israel to keep its West Bank "settlement blocs" while compensating Palestinians with land inside Israel.
But my community of Qira, like many others, cannot survive in a Palestinian state divided by Israel's settlement blocs. The settlement blocs are built on Palestinian agricultural land and water resources, and carve the West Bank into disconnected Palestinian bantustans.
Every morning I see through my window the settlement of Ariel, lying atop the hill adjacent to my village. I've never visited Ariel's beautiful homes and green gardens, so different from our poor, parched community, because as a Palestinian I am forbidden to enter Ariel, even though it sits on Palestinian land in the West Bank.
In 1978, when construction of Ariel began, I was a child. Yet I recall my frustration and sorrow for the many Palestinian farmers who lost their lands to the Israeli colony. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Ariel is one of the four fastest growing Israeli settlements. It expanded from 179 acres and 5,300 residents in 1985 to 1732 acres and 16,414 inhabitants in 2005 (PDF
Ariel is located in the center of the Salfit District in the northern West Bank, 13 miles east from the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 border. Ariel is part of the larger "Ariel settlement bloc" which consists of 26 other West Bank settlements with nearly 40,000 settlers.
Cutting deep into the heart of the West Bank, the Ariel settlement bloc separates the northern West Bank from the rest of the West Bank. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher warned against the construction of Israel's wall around Ariel in June 2004, saying that it would make Palestinian life more difficult and confiscate Palestinian property. Nonetheless, hundreds of acres of Palestinian land were confiscated for that wall.
If the Ariel settlement bloc becomes part of Israel through the territorial exchanges proposed by Israel and supported by the US, it would be disastrous for the Salfit district's 70,000 residents. Ariel forms a physical barrier. We must travel around the entire settlement and through Israeli checkpoints to reach the town of Salfit, our district's "urban center." It typically took me 90 minutes to drive from my village to Salfit when I worked there, even though it is only four miles away.
Ariel's settlers prevent Palestinians from harvesting their olive groves near the colony. They attack Palestinians, sometimes under the Israeli army's protection. They have even entered mosques and desecrated the Quran inside.
Although the Salfit district is located in the West Bank's most water-rich region, our water supplies have been redirected to Israel and Ariel. According to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, Israeli settlers consume five times more water than local Palestinians. The nearby villages of Kifr al-Dik and Bruqin are constantly without enough water for these reasons.
Sewage from the hilltop settlements and wastewater from Ariel's industrial zone pollute our region. According to the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, 80 factories from Ariel's Barkan industrial zone discharge 0.81 million cubic meters of wastewater per year into nearby valleys (PDF). All this wastewater and the sewage have formed a river through the agricultural lands of the villages of Kifr al-Dik and Bruqin. These poisonous streams have led to the death and ruin of trees and crops located in their immediate vicinity.
Restrictions on our movement, settler attacks, the diversion of our water and the pollution of our land, all caused by the Ariel settlement bloc, are destroying Salfit's economy, and dramatically restricting our rights. Ariel is like a bone in our throat that is choking us.
Palestinians hope to reach a peace agreement with Israel, and we are cautiously optimistic about the Annapolis, Maryland conference. But Palestinians are most concerned with getting back their stolen lands. Incorporating settlement blocs like Ariel into Israel is not a viable solution. Ordinary Palestinians will not be able to cope unless their rights are restored.