Israeli army orders confiscation of Palestinian land in West Bank

· Seizure would allow huge expansion of settlements
· Move seen as rush to make changes before US summit

Conal Urquhart in Jerusalem
Wednesday October 10, 2007
The Guardian

Construction workers in the West Bank
Construction workers in the West Bank. Photograph: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

The Israeli army has ordered the seizure of Palestinian land surrounding four West Bank villages apparently in order to hugely expand settlements around Jerusalem, it emerged yesterday.

The confiscation happened as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met to prepare the ground for a meeting hosted by President George Bush in the United States aimed at reviving a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

However, critics said the confiscation of land suggested that Israel was imposing its own solution on the Palestinians through building roads, barriers and settlements that would render a Palestinian state unviable.

The land seized forms a corridor from East Jerusalem to Jericho and is intended to be used for a road that would be for Palestinians only. Analysts said the road would run on one side of the Israeli security barrier, while the existing Jerusalem-Jericho road would be reserved for Israelis.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli army said it was necessary to build a road to link Bethlehem and the Judea region with Jericho and the Jordan valley area in order to “improve the quality of life” for Palestinians.

She said the road would be nearly 10 miles long and would be built on 145 hectares (357 acres) of state land and 23 hectares of private land that had been confiscated. She added that the army had designed the route to minimise losses to private landowners.

Adam Keller of the Israeli peace group, Gush Shalom, said the confiscation of land belonging to the villages of Abu Dis, Arab al-Sawahra, Nebi Musa and Talhin Alhamar would “rob many villagers of their sole livelihood” but would also “facilitate the big annexation plan known as E-1, which is aimed at linking the settlement of Ma’aleh Adummim with Jerusalem and cutting the West Bank in two.”

He said the confiscations were aimed at constructing a “Palestinian bypass road” that would “push the Palestinian traffic between Bethlehem and Ramallah deep into the desert and effectively bar them from the central part of the West Bank”.

The E-1 area has been marked out on Israeli government maps for years but the state has refrained from large scale development of the area. The only building to be completed is the proposed headquarters of the Israeli police in the West Bank.

The plan for the area envisages 3,500 housing units and dozens of businesses which have yet to be started, although infrastructure such as roads and drainage is being constructed.

Jeff Halper, an Israeli geographer who specialises in Israel’s development of the West Bank, said it appeared that there was a rush to carry out as much work as possible before the US-sponsored meeting between Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, in Annapolis, Maryland, in November.