Israel strengthened its forces along the border with the Gaza Strip last Sunday, fearful that thousands of Palestinians may march on the border against Israel’s economic siege, as they did recently in Rafah.
Israel fears that crowds of Palestinians might rush the border, and that large numbers of casualties will result from the army’s attempts to stop them, causing a revolutionary explosion.
The concerns are based on the breaching of the Gaza-Egyptian border a month ago, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians streamed across Rafah into Egypt after Hamas blew up the wall there.
Israel believes Hamas is now planning a new action, directed at Israel, to break the siege on the Gaza Strip and draw global attention to the plight of Gaza’s impoverished residents.
Gasoline ran out in Gaza over the weekend in the aftermath of limitations imposed by Israel on imports into the Strip, excluding fuel for emergency vehicles.
Diesel fuel is also said to be in short supply.
Meanwhile, the leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), Nayef Hawatmeh, has urged Hamas to renounce its control of the Gaza Strip, and Fatah to stop talks with Israel and open inter-Palestinian negotiations instead.
In a speech at the Yarmuk refugee camp near Damascus last Friday, Hawatmeh said: ‘Hamas must renounce its control over Gaza, and Abu Mazen (Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas) must stop talking to Israel so that comprehensive Palestinian negotiations can be opened.
‘Hamas must cease its armed hegemony over the Gaza Strip which is separated from the West Bank and Jerusalem.
‘The Palestinian Authority must turn its back on political coups d’etat and stop talking to Israel until the end of all Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.’
He was addressing a meeting organised to mark the 39th anniversary of the DFLP, which he founded in 1969.
The DFLP was among three Palestinian factions which offered last October to mediate a settlement between Fatah and Hamas.
A new initiative to resolve the conflict ‘will see the light of day very soon,’ Hawatmeh said.
He warned: ‘This dreadful conflict has destroyed the unified Palestinian national project.
‘It has increased the despair of the Palestinian people and given the enemy the chance to scoff at our rights.’
The DFLP leader also called for the deployment of international troops on Palestinian land occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Last July, Israel said it had agreed to allow Hawatmeh to visit the occupied West Bank for the first time in 40 years for a meeting of the central council of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Ramallah.
But he did not attend after the DFLP said his return should not be on the basis of just temporary permission – they wanted it to be unrestricted.
In a separate development, Israeli Infrastructure Minister and member of the powerful security cabinet, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, on Saturday called for the release of jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouthi in a bid to push forward the peace process.
Ben-Eliezer told Israel public radio that ‘Marwan Barghouthi must be set free in order to obtain results in the peace process’ between Israel and the Palestinians.
‘I have a lot of respect for (Palestinian president) Mahmud Abbas and for (Abbas-appointed Palestinian prime minister) Salam Fayyad, but if we want results we must address Barghouthi,’ Ben-Eliezer said in Tel Aviv.
The Israeli Infrastructure Minister insisted that the Fatah leader and backbone of the intifada was capable of persuading the Palestinian people to accept a peace settlement with Israel.
‘Marwan Barghouthi has all the chances of becoming the next Palestinian leader’ he said.
‘His liberation could help advance the political negotiations and lead to the release of Gilad Shalit,’ – the Israeli serviceman seized in a Gaza Strip cross-border raid by Palestinian fighters on June 25, 2006.
Previously, in September, Ben-Eliezer called for Barghouthi to be exchanged for Gilad.
An opinion poll in January by the Dahaf Institute showed that 71 per cent of Israelis support exchanging Barghouthi for Shalit, while 23 per cent oppose such a move.
Meanwhile, reports have emerged of the destruction of Palestinian olive and nut groves.
The farmers of Beit Ula spent two years preparing their new groves of fruit, nut and olive trees, clearing rocks, building stone terraces and digging deep cisterns to catch the scarce rain.
The Israeli army destroyed it all in less than a day.
‘We heard they were here at 6.30 in the morning, when it was still dark,’ said Sami al-Adam, one of eight farmers whose terraces were bulldozed on January 15.
‘There must have been dozens of soldiers with jeeps and bulldozers, and they brought a lot of Filipino workers, or maybe they were Thai, who pulled up the trees and cut them and buried them so we wouldn’t be able to plant them again.’
When the soldiers and police left the site, in the low hills on the West Bank’s border with Israel, 6.4 hectares of trees and terraces had been uprooted and bulldozed.
The concrete cisterns were broken open and choked with rubble.
Two years’ work and an investment of more than 100,000 euros ($160,000) had gone to waste.
The Israeli military department that controls the occupied West Bank, confusingly called ‘the Civil Administration’, said it demolished the terraces because they were built illegally on state land belonging to Israel.
This came as a surprise to the West Bank farmers, who brandished documents with Palestinian, Israeli and even Turkish stamps that, they say, prove their title to the land.
It came as an even bigger surprise to the EU, which provided 64,000 euros to the project as part of a programme to improve ‘food security’ for Palestinians.
European Commission spokeswoman Alex de Mauny said: ‘Obviously it’s a disaster in human terms – these are not rich people, they are living very much on the margins – but there’s the broader issue of why it happened, and how we can stop it from happening again.’
A statement from the Civil Administration maintained, contrary to the EU’s statement, that the Europeans had not funded the project.
According to a 2002 report by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, 40 per cent of the West Bank has been seized by Israeli military tribunals, which declare it to be ‘state land’, re-allocating much of it to Jewish settlements.
In the case of Beit Ula, the Civil Administration says the farmers were officially informed that they were building illegally on state land in 2006 and given the statutory 45 days to appeal before the demolition notice became final.
One of the farmers, Mahmoud al-Adam, shows visitors a military form that he found under a stone on his plot in June 2006, telling him he would be evicted from 2.5 hectares of state land that he was illegally building on, and that he would be charged the demolition cost.
Such forms are the Israeli army’s standard notification for house demolitions or land seizures.
But there was apparently no warning to the other seven farmers, and 6.4 hectares of terrace and trees were destroyed, not 2.5 hectares.
The Civil Administration has yet to respond to the claim that most of the farmers received no legal warning or due process.
A spokesman said: ‘It’s a routine action. We are very strict about these things. If you let one person do it unauthorised, all the others will come after him.’
According to Civil Administration figures, in the seven years to September 2007 nearly 5,000 demolition orders were issued against unauthorised Palestinian houses, buildings or infrastructure in Area C, the 60 per cent of the West Bank that officially remains under full Israeli rule.
Of these, 1,663 (roughly a third) were carried out.
In the same period, 2,900 demolition orders were issued against illegal building by Zionist settlers in the area. Only seven per cent, or 199, were carried out.
And while the Civil Administration issued permits for 18,472 housing units for settlers in those seven years, the indigenous Palestinians were granted only 91 building permits.
According to figures from the Israeli group Peace Now, 94 per cent of the Palestinian applications were rejected, including requests to build or extend houses as well as repair roads, water pipes, wells and other infrastructure.
Last week also brought news of the establishment of two more illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank – one in the Jordan Valley and another a ‘new neighbourhood’ of Eli, an older Jewish settlement near Nablus.
The Civil Administration told journalists any attempt to evict the settlers or demolish their structures would depend on the political leadership and on Israel’s High Court.