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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1997, pgs. 14, 80

Special Report

Land Dealer Killings Highlight Collapse of Israeli-Palestinian Talks

by Stephen J. Sosebee

The May killing of three West Bank land dealers has further eroded an already teetering Middle East peace process. Like the question of refugees, settlements and East Jerusalem, the new ban on selling Arab land to Israelis goes to the core of the conflict, land. Israel already has confiscated more than 60 percent of West Bank land and 40 percent of Gaza, and the behavior and statements by a hostile Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has forced the Palestinian Authority (PA) to take drastic steps to stave off further loss of Palestine.

"There is no crime greater than selling our land to our occupier," says George Jaber, a shop owner in Beit Jala. "It is the highest form of treason." This is a view shared by the vast majority of Palestinians, who have sacrificed for their nation and who have seen too many of their children die during the intifada that finally brought the Israelis to the negotiating table.

The current focus on land sales to Israelis began on May 5, when Palestinian Authority Justice Minister Freih Abu Medein said that Arabs who sold land to Israelis should be punished in the most severe terms, including death. This is not an evolution in Palestinian political thought. Since the first uprising in 1936, Arabs who allowed their lands to fall into the possession of Zionist groups were targeted as traitors.

The current chorus of hypocritical U.S. and Israeli denunciation came after the killing of land dealer Farid Bashiti, whose bound and beaten body was found in Ramallah less than a week after Abu Medein's statement. Bashiti reportedly was last seen in the custody of Force 17, an elite security arm of the PA.

According to the Israeli police, Nadia Dabash, 33, a Palestinian business associate, lured Bashiti to the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, where he was apprehended and taken to PA-controlled Ramallah.

The Israeli insistence on protecting traitors living in Palestinian areas seemingly has left the PA with only extra-judicial measures to deal with fraudulent land dealers.

The chief Muslim cleric of Jerusalem, Mufti Ikrema Sabri, entered the issue by calling Bashiti an "infidel" for selling Arab land to Israelis and declaring that he could not be buried in a Muslim cemetery. The cleric later told Friday worshippers that people who sell land to Israelis should be removed from Palestinian society. "You should not speak to them, allow them to marry into your family or mix with them in any way.'' He also said anyone who sympathizes with the land dealers should be ostracized, including their families. This is the view shared by nearly every Palestinian Christian or Muslim, leftist or rightist.

"A people without land is like a body without a spirit," said an emotional young man following Friday prayers outside Al-Aqsa. "These dealers are killing our country, so we have to defend ourselves."

Two weeks later the body of Harbi Abu Sara, 60, from Ein Yabroud village was found near Ramallah with a bullet in the head. "In his village he is known as a dealer of land," said Mustafa Liftawi, the mayor of Ramallah. "He sold land to Israelis and he had a bad reputation ethically." Liftawi denied PA involvement in the death, however, saying it was a family dispute.

Israeli authorities rejected this explanation. "There is no doubt that it was people from the PA who stood behind the person who pulled the trigger, even people in official positions," charged Israeli Police Minister Avigdor Kahalani.

A few days later, another suspected land dealer, Ali Jambour, 34, from Shoufat refugee camp was found shot dead in Ramallah after reportedly being taken by PA security forces.

While it appears that the PA security forces are enforcing Abu Medein's hard-line ban on land sales with summary executions, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat denied official responsibility for the killings. He said Palestinians who sold land to Israelis were "isolated traitors and we will act against them according to the law. It is our right and obligation to protect our land."

Arafat explained that this was not a new or even a Palestinian law. It first was imposed by the Jordanian government after it lost the West Bank in 1967, he said.

Arafat also claimed the ban had dealt a blow to Israel's settlement policy, which was boosted recently by the lack of official American condemnation of the bulldozing at Jabal Abu Ghneim in preparation for building 6,500 housing units at the planned Jews-only Har Homa settlement on former West Bank land annexed by the Israelis to Jerusalem.

Netanyahu sought to use the Palestinian ban on land sales as an excuse to "break off" peace negotiations once and for all with the PA. "We must consider carefully if we should continue talks with people who represent such fascist theories," said his adviser David Bar-Ilan. Other right-wing ministers called the ban "anti-Semitic."

Bar-Ilan's claim that the PA's land policy is "fascist" is the most hypocritical comment from the Likud since Ariel Sharon called Arafat a "terrorist." In fact, since 1948 Israel has banned the sale of Jewish National Fund (JNF) land to Arabs, even if they are citizens.

"The Palestinians are mimicking us," says Israeli lawyer Danny Seideimann. "An Israeli [Arab] citizen born and bred in Haifa who wants to buy an apartment on JNF land is not entitled to, while a Jewish resident in the U.S. is."

Losing international support over the Jabal Abu Ghneim debacle, Israeli officials have been waiting for an opportunity to put pressure back on the PA. It is no coincidence that Abu Medein's statements came after U.S. special envoy Dennis Ross spent two weeks trying to force Arafat to accept the fait accompli of Jabal Abu Ghneim and return to "negotiations."

"The U.S. condemns any law or decree that would threaten death against any Palestinian for selling land to Israelis or Jews," said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. "That's wrong. It is contrary to what must prevail in the Middle East, which is peace and the spirit of peace." As the main power and so-called peace broker in the Middle East, one would expect that the U.S. would at least try to present a balanced position on the issue of land rights in the West Bank.

Almost as hypocritical as Bar-Ilan's statement was a State Department position articulated by Burns that was so far from being balanced that it drew criticism from even the most docile Arab leaders, who face increasing opposition at home for supporting the so-called peace process.

"This is now the most crucial stage of Oslo," explained Palestinian Ahmed Abu Hassan in Gaza. "If the effort to attain our homeland through negotiation fails, then we have no other option than to return to the armed struggle. We at least know the rules of that game."

Any Palestinian teenager could have told Ross and his spokesman, Burns, that the ban on selling Palestinian land to Israelis, and the killing of land dealers who do, would not have happened had the U.S. stood up to Netanyahu's blatant violation of the Oslo accords and of international law at Jabal Abu Ghneim. Clinton's failure to put a stop to the further expropriation of Palestine forced the PA to deal with this matter in its own way.

At this writing, other suspected land dealers are in PA jails. Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper reports that a "hit list" of 16 fraudulent Arab land dealers is being circulated through the PA security establishment. Far from backing down, Abu Medein has since threatened Arab land dealers who hold Israeli citizenship.

"We advise those who carry the Israeli identity card that if they believe they have become Israeli citizens, and because of that they are protected, they are mistaken," he said. "They will be brought to justice one way or another."

A few days later Israeli forces were able to protect known land dealer Assad Rajabi from being taken from Jerusalem to Ramallah by the PA. Netanyahu blamed Palestinian Col. Tawfiq Tirawi as the PA official behind at least two of the killings and the effort to take Rajabi into custody.

Despite the feeble efforts of Dennis Ross, the crisis is deepening, and it seems that the only way to avoid an even bloodier confrontation is a U.S.-imposed Middle East land conference to determine who rightly owns what in the West Bank under the framework of the Fourth Geneva Convention. If Israel is so sure of the legality of the steps it is taking to retain 60 percent of the West Bank, let it open the Land Registration Office records to international scrutiny. Unlike other offices of the West Bank "Civil Administration," which are located at Beit El near the Jalazone refugee camp, the Land Registration Office is at a secret location inside Israel and its records are "top secret." The reason for this is obvious: the fraudulent nature of most of the land transactions that have taken place in the West Bank.

Nearly four years ago, optimists at the White House envisioned that in 1997 the final-status peace talks would begin. Palestinians feel that under Netanyahu's stewardship 1997 is instead the beginning of his "final solution" for their dream of statehood in historic Palestine. Until it is clear what type of entity will emerge in the West Bank and who will control how much land, those who sell sacred and limited West Bank land to encroaching Israelis will be the first, unlamented victims in what is sure to be a bloody confrontation that very likely will spread far beyond the borders of Israel/ Palestine.