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Major Israeli settlement 'unlawful'

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Ofra

Judy Kramer, Ofra resident
Judy Kramer has watched the settlement grow hugely since 1990

Israeli settlements on occupied territory are seen as illegal by the rest of the world. But now an Israeli human rights group is saying that even under Israeli law, one of the most significant and well-established settlements is unlawful.

The human rights group B'tselem has published a report in which it states that almost 60% of the settlement of Ofra has been built on land which remains in private Palestinian ownership.

The settlement was established in 1975, just to the north-east of Ramallah.

A history of the settlement recounts how about 20 Jewish settlers, with sleeping bags and jerry cans, came one Sunday to set up camp.

Ofra's population now numbers more than 4,000 people.

The settlement's streets are suburban. Around the neat, red-tiled houses there are cherry orchards. The ancient hills of the West Bank provide an impressive backdrop.


'Very peaceful'

From the kitchen of her tidy house, Judy Kramer, 61, sighs with pleasure as she looks at the view through her picture windows.

The documents purport to show Palestinian ownership of much of Ofra's land
The documents purport to show Palestinian ownership of much of Ofra's land

"Orchards, mountains, fir tree... very peaceful, very peaceful," she says.

Judy Kramer moved to Ofra in 1990, 21 years after she emigrated to Israel from England.

She has seen the settlement grow hugely. And she believes that all this land belongs to the Jewish people.

Just half a mile away, the Palestinian villagers could not disagree more.

Ziad Abdul Rahman, 65, runs a grocery shop in the village of Ein Yabrud.

As we talk, I am shown photocopies of documents in Arabic, which purport to show how most of the land on which Ofra has been built is in fact still owned by the Palestinians here.

Ziad and his 60-year-old friend Walid Hussein insist that the only recourse now is for the settlers to go, and the land to be returned.

"There will be no peace," said Walid, "if you don't give me my right, my ownership." Ziad says that money is not the issue.

Walid chips in: "The true owner never will sell one metre of land in this country."

Israeli law

The research into land ownership in Ofra was carried out by the Israeli human rights group, B'tselem.

Map, Ofra

Sarit Michaeli, the spokeswoman for the group, says it is important to remember that under international law - at least in the eyes of the rest of the world - all Israeli settlements on occupied territory are illegal.

But she says that the new research removes any legal prop for Ofra to exist under Israeli law.

She argues that Israel has set certain legal criteria for what qualifies, in the country's terms, as a legal settlement.

"Ofra does not fulfil these criteria," contends Ms Michaeli.

"And the most important one - the fact that most of the land in Ofra is in fact privately owned by Palestinians - means that Ofra qualifies as the largest unlawful outpost in the West Bank."

Frontline

The authorities in the settlement dispute the findings; Meir Nahieli, the secretary of Ofra, told us that the land was indeed bought.

"But unlike B'tselem who wear the hat of the poor Palestinians, we handle this very discreetly, because it is a life and death issue."

Ziad Abdul Rahman, resident of Ein Yabrud
Ziad Abdul Rahman says the settlers should go

His point: that some Palestinians who have been found to have sold land to Israelis have, in the past, been killed.

Back in her well-ordered living-room in Ofra, Judy Kramer goes further.

She says that arguments over bits of land miss the bigger point.

"The issue is that the Arabs don't want the Jews here," she says, over cups of English tea.

She says it is immaterial how much land is offered as part of a potential peace deal; she cites the failure of the talks at Camp David at the end of the Clinton presidency.

The Arabs, she says, are not after a particular area of territory. "That's not what they want. They want us out."

Ofra does not feel like a frontline. It is middle class, almost quaint.

But it lies at the sharpest point of the clash over territory, the battle over who this land belongs to.

Today it is the focus of a new, detailed report about ownership.

Its future - along with all the land around - remains as disputed as ever.

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