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In the shadow of an Israeli settlement

Givat Ze'ev settlement, seen through West Bank barrier (photo Martin Asser/BBC)
Givat Ze'ev settlement is separated from local Palestinians by Israel's West Bank barrier

Extensive diplomatic efforts towards reviving Mid-East peace talks have yielded little. The US has continued to demand Israel freeze settlement activity in the West Bank, while Palestinians refuse to negotiate without a freeze.

In the second of a two-part investigation, the BBC's Martin Asser sees the effect of settlements on the lives of Palestinians.

They are called the Seven Villages, situated north-west of Jerusalem where the West Bank hills fall away towards the Mediterranean.

SEVEN VILLAGES POPULATIONS
Beit Anan - 4,264
Beit Duqqu - 1,600
Beit Ijza - 671
Beit Surik - 3,818
Qubeiba - 2,069
Qatanna - 7,496
Source: Palestinian Authority (2006)

Though their inhabitants live within the Palestinian Authority's Jerusalem governorate, few get to visit Jerusalem - though the city was "like a mother to us" one man said.

While Israelis in nearby Givat Ze'ev settlement bloc zip to Jerusalem by car in minutes, the Palestinian villagers need permission from Israel's military authorities.

If they don't get permission, apparently the norm, there are roundabout ways past Israel's defences and into the city, but this risks jail and a stiff fine.

Israel says all restrictions are imposed to prevent Palestinian militants wreaking havoc with suicide bombings.

But, the Seven Villages is known as a quiet area. Israeli soldiers I spoke to said there was very little militant activity.

Palestinian residents insist they are peaceable folk - famers, labourers, some professionals - who just want to live normal, decent lives.

Enclosed lives

Everyone I met said their world was dominated by Israel's occupation of the West Bank, in place since the 1967 war.

After occupation came Jewish settlements; after the violent Palestinian uprising of 2000 came Israel's vast infrastructure to protect the settlements. Now villagers in this area of the West Bank are hemmed in on all sides.

To the West and South Israel's West Bank barrier follows roughly the pre-1967 border. To the East it snakes deep into the territory around Givat Ze'ev. To the North is the heavily defended Highway 443, connecting northern Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.

There are two official exits: via a 1.3km-long sunken road through the Givat Ze'ev loop towards Ramallah, and via Beit Iksa village towards Jerusalem.

West Bank map

The recently completed underpass - built on confiscated Palestinian land - made a significant improvement on the tortuous route people used to take to the West Bank's main city.

But simultaneously, Israel built a military checkpoint on the road to Beit Iksa, and now only its residents can pass.

Many villagers were concerned that, although the underpass undoubtedly made life easier, it also made it easier for Israel to lock down the whole area with a very small military deployment.

High price

While Palestinians insist the barrier is part of a land grab, Israelis officials say its purpose is purely defensive and, furthermore, temporary so it could be removed if peace breaks out.

Mahmoud Salim
Mahmoud Salim's lives in the "security zone" beside the West Bank barrier

But it has already taken a heavy price in the Seven Villages.

I met Mahmoud Salim on his way from Beit Ijza to the centremost village of Biddu to pay his electricity bill.

His house is located in a security zone for the barrier, which passes 15 metres away. His farmland lies on the other side and he has been told by the army he cannot "put one stone on another" in what's left of his garden.

He remembered the day in 2004 when Israeli troops first came to secure the area.

"People wanted to defend their land, but troops opened fire as though faced by another army. My son was the first one killed, though he wasn't involved in the demonstrations."

He is not the only such case in the Seven Villages. I met another man by chance in Beit Duqqu whose brother was killed in the same clashes.

Security anomalies

Some villagers, thanks to the barrier, find themselves in positions of such extraordinary and precarious absurdity you can scarcely believe what you're seeing.

Sabri household, Beit Ijza (photo Martin Asser/BBC)
The Sabri family home is in the middle of an elaborate high-security installation

The Sabris live on the east side of the barrier, embedded in a small settlement south of Givat Ze'ev, but completely surrounded by a six-metre-high wire fence.

Their simple hilltop house is reached by a stark concrete bridge over the barrier, which is dug into the rock below.

The bridge is controlled by a massive steel gate operated remotely by troops in the Atarot base 5km away.

To begin with, the family said, soldiers dutifully closed the gate at night, but now it stands open all the time. One can only guess how much this arrangement added to the cost of the barrier (estimated overall to be $1.3bn).

They talk about a settlement freeze, but they've forgotten the occupation. If we got rid of that, the settlements would go
Schoolteacher, Beit Duqqu

On the other side of Givat Ze'ev, to the east, I met the Najadas, whose house lies in a "security zone" between the barrier and the settlement, cut off from their nearest village, al-Jib.

To get to work or school in the village, they walk along the security road next to the barrier to the nearest checkpoint. They cannot use cars or keep goats and have given up the idea of getting their crops to market.

I witnessed Abdul Baset Najada being told by checkpoint guards he couldn't walk along the road, although we were allowed to take him by car.

Disagreement

The people I spoke to seemed unimpressed by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's stance that peace talks cannot resume with Israel unless settlement construction ends.

"The papers are all talking about freezing settlements, but they've forgotten the occupation. If we got rid of that, the settlements would go," said a schoolteacher in Beit Duqqu.

Many see Mr Abbas as dancing to Israel's tune, while in their view settlements on 1967 land should not just stop growing, but should be removed completely.

Beit Duqqu is considered particularly affected by the expansion of Givat Ze'ev, one of the fastest growing Jewish settlements.

The village lies just across the valley from the Agan Ha'ayalot development, and it isn't hard to imagine its new Orthodox Jewish residents coming under militant attack from snipers or infiltrators one day.

"God help us if any settler gets hurt," says the schoolteacher, adding with a chuckle: "Maybe there will be an earthquake and we'll all be down in the valley."



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