SALFIT, West Bank – The Israeli army is quietly taking over West Bank land privately owned by Palestinians in what it says is a temporary move to protect its citizens from militants. But Palestinians — mindful that similar tactics were once used to establish Jewish settlements — fear they will never get their land back.
According to Israeli military documents, copies of which were obtained by The Associated Press, some of the land seized is in areas where officials want to build a fortified fence to keep Palestinian militants from entering Israel.
Other documents indicate Israel is trying to create buffers between Jewish enclaves and Palestinian towns deep within the West Bank — including this town of Salfit, which is surrounded by 17 large and small settlements.
Critics say the scattered and in some cases sizable seizures could carve up the West Bank in a way that would make it difficult for the Palestinians to create a viable state on land Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.
The Israeli army says the seizures are necessary to counter suicide bombers.
"There is a military need to command some areas for security reasons in order to control and observe areas where threats emanate from," said Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, a military spokesman. "This is not annexation of territory."
Khalil Tufakji, the Palestinian Authority's chief cartographer, has mapped out recent seizures that include long, narrow strips of land along the invisible line dividing Israel from the West Bank.
West of Jenin, the Palestinian city that has produced more than 20 suicide bombers, another 27 square miles of land was taken. South of the Palestinian town of Tulkarem, 3 square miles was taken and army spokeswoman Capt. Sharon Feingold said the land would be used "in order to create barriers," or buffers between Israel and the West Bank.
She said the Supreme Court heard two appeals to block the confiscations but both were rejected.
The two patches, both close to the border with Israel, constitute just over 1 percent of the entire West Bank.
Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, Israel's deputy defense minister, said construction of a fence between Israel and the West Bank was under way. She did not provide specifics but said "in some areas, the work has already begun. There are many places where fences have been built."
Aside from the buffer areas, some confiscations have recently occurred deeper inside the West Bank, according to copies of documents provided to AP by Palestinian officials and lawyers and authenticated by the Israeli army.
Such is the case in Salfit in the central West Bank where Mohamed Salim Alkim's 15 acres were seized and his olive groves and apple orchards uprooted by bulldozers.
The town, ringed by 17 Jewish settlements, is suspected to be the home of Palestinian militants who target settlers. Recently, the Israeli army said it discovered a bomb-making factory here.
As a result, Salfit has been hit by missiles, tank shelling, gunbattles, house demolitions and arrests.
All its access roads have been sealed by the military. Soldiers, tanks and bulldozers encircle the area.
So to get to where his fields once were, the 66-year-old Alkim, whose face and hands have been weathered by the Middle Eastern sun and years of physical work, walks on foot for several hundred yards across a stretch of biblical land dotted with wild flowers and shrub.
Standing on a breezy hilltop, Alkim points to the commanding Jewish settlement of Ariel where suburban homes sprung up next to Salfit 25 years ago. Ariel is expanding, Salfit's acreage is shrinking. There is no relationship between the two communities — just animosity.
Land is at the center of this century-old dispute.
The West Bank was supposed to be the heart of a separate state for Palestinians under the 1947 U.N. partition plan that envisioned a Jewish and Arab state living side-by-side in what had been British-ruled Palestine. Instead, war broke out and the territory was annexed by Jordan.
In 1967, Israel captured the West Bank and began building Jewish settlements there. Today, some 200,000 settlers live in communities built on territory claimed by Palestinians.
Alkim, 66, wants his property back — he wants to leave it to his 12 children. But he doesn't think Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will be able to get it for him.
"The only way is by force," he said.
Salfit may look empty and worthless, but under the rocky, untamed surroundings lies a treasure in this thirsty land — water. Salfit, which means "Basket of Grapes," is situated near several aquifers that, according to Palestinian lore, have been a source of contention since 800 A.D.
Manal Hazan, of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, is trying to help Salfit reclaim its land. So far, the army has responded favorably to a written appeal to freeze construction of a road on the seized land.
"To a certain degree this was a success, but I don't think the farmers will get their land back. It's true the orders have expiration dates but they are always renewed," she said.
In a separate case, the Israeli lawyer is suing the military commander of the West Bank over a land seizure near the city of Hebron. The case is before the Supreme Court.
Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian official in charge of local governments, said more than a dozen mayors and village elders have received land seizure notices from the army in recent months.
The AP obtained several letters, some dated as recently as April, and signed by Israel's military commander in the West Bank.
In some cases the one-page letters, written in Hebrew — which most Arabs cannot read — were posted at village entrances. They begin: "By the authority vested in me as the Israeli army commander of Judea and Samaria, and as I believe it is a military necessity given the special security circumstances now prevailing in the area, I hereby order the following: ... ."
The letters include the number of plots and the period — ranging from one to four years — they will remain seized.
Some of the notices dealt with the area south of Tulkarem, to be used for the new buffer zone.
In one letter, dated April 24, the army said it was taking a swath of land around Faron, Taibeh, al Ras and Kafr Sur — four West Bank villages close to Israel — that amounted to 4.74 miles by 56-66 feet. In a second letter, dated the same day, the army said it would be taking another tract of 1.35 miles by 56 feet from Faron.
"We have stacks of these letters," Erekat said. "They're taking land around Jenin, Salfit, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron and the Jordan Valley." He accused Israel of "racing to implement unilateral policies."
Researchers say the current seizures are reminiscent of the method Israel used to get land for settlements until the Supreme Court ordered it to halt the practice in 1979.
"After '79, Israel continued from time to time to take land for military purposes in order to build bypass roads, army bases or checkpoints, but not for settlements," said Yehezkel Lein, a researcher with the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem which documents land confiscations.
Recently, Lein said, the army has built checkpoints, security roads and bases on some of the seized land.
Since the latest Palestinian uprising began, he said, the army has had to build checkpoints to enforce their closure of towns and villages, and the settlers "need bypass roads for their bypass roads."
Landowners can challenge an order in a military court and the letters also say property holders "are eligible to request information on compensation and user fees."
But practically no one does.
"It's not a question of money for us," says Salfit's mayor, Shaher Eshteih. "This has been our land for generations."