Page last updated at 11:45 GMT, Saturday, 28 November 2009

No easy settlement for West Bank tensions

Alan Johnston makes his first visit to the Palestinian territories since his kidnap two years ago, and finds that the building of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem is still as contentious as any issue in the Middle East.

Builders at Maale Adumim settlement in the West Bank, November 2009
Settlers say the land is part of ancient Israel

We had been at a political rally. It had drawn a large crowd in a village schoolyard.

There had been flags, furious speeches and blasting music. Young men had linked arms and performed the Palestinian folk dance, the Dabkha, with its fast, stamping steps.

But this was not quite enough excitement for some in the crowd, and a brawl broke out. It was just a brief flare-up between village lads.

And as he led us away from the shoving, shouting melee, my local colleague Alaa' smiled.

"I've seen much worse," he said quietly.

And of course he has. Anybody covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has seen worse, even me.

In Gaza two years ago, I was kidnapped by jihadis and held for some months. This was my first day back reporting in the Palestinian territories.

'Biblical' land

As we drove out of the village, the sun was sinking behind the hills, their shadows lengthening across the valley.

A farmer was ploughing the last of his furrows in the last of the light.

Palestinian olive trees uprooted in Burin village in the West Bank on 12/11/09
Palestinians accuse settlers of attacking their homes and livelihoods

And in that moment the land seemed at peace.

But in the West Bank signs of tension are never far away, if you know where to look.

High on the crest of a hill you could make out what seemed to be a caravan.

It was a tiny Israeli outpost. This is how so many settlements began.

First one, and then before long there might be three or four makeshift buildings up there. This is how - metre-by-metre - the settlers have consolidated their hold on the land Israel occupies.

Earlier in the day, up in one of the settlements, I had sat down in the autumn sunshine with David Ha'ivri.

He was a large man with a thick, dark beard, but at times he was almost softly spoken.

There was no mistaking though the depth of his conviction as he explained the connection he felt with the land around us.

"The hills," he said, "were the heartland of ancient, biblical Israel."

Here he walked in the footsteps of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, founding figures in the faith that filled his life.

David saw his presence there as part of his people's near-miraculous redemption of the land that they lost 2,000 years ago.

And to be part of that destiny, he and his eight children had had to risk the threat of attack by armed Palestinians who have targeted settlers.

"The Arabs," he said, "simply needed to accept the reality of Israel's control."

'Settler attacks'

But there are other realities too. One of them is that in international law, all settlement building on occupied territory has been illegal.

Another reality is that the advance of the settlers has continually added to the points of potential conflict.

West Bank

A few days after meeting David, I was climbing a hillside on a Palestinian farm above the village of Burin.

Eventually we reached one of the higher terraces, and the scene of a disaster.

Dozens of olive trees had been hacked down. Everywhere branches lay on the earth, the wind tugging at their silvery leaves.

The farmer said settlers had done the damage, and that he had wept when he had discovered what had happened.

Back down the hillside, a white building stood in the fields - the home of the Suffan family.

It had the feel of a fortress. Its walls were reinforced with fencing and barbed wire.

The mother of the family, Hannan, said the defences were to keep out gangs of settlers.

She said they wanted to drive her from the house, and that they often came in the night, armed with sticks and stones and petrol bombs. She showed me scorch marks in a room that had caught fire.

Hanging on a wall in the living room was a picture of a man in his 50s. His face was weathered by a life in the fields, and there was an intensity in his staring eyes.

This was Mrs Suffan's husband, Attalla. She said he had died of a heart attack four years ago during an attempt by settlers to burn down the house.

Outside from a balcony, I counted eight settlements, outposts and army locations on the surrounding hills.

The Israelis have tended to gravitate towards the emptier, more easily defended, higher ground.

A little earlier I had been thinking again about my conversation with David, the settler, who had actually been born in America, and only came to Israel from New York as a child.

He had argued that if Palestinians could not accept Israeli rule now over what he called this tiny corner of the Middle East, they should leave.

He said they should make their home in one of the Arab nations.

I put this suggestion to Mrs Suffan, who had told me that her family had lived in the valley for generations.

She said it was her land, and that she wouldn't leave it for the settlers. She said that they had already taken all the mountains.

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