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Borders, Settlements Key Issues at Mideast Conference


With the U.S.-sponsored Mideast conference underway in Annapolis Maryland, borders are one of the issues on the agenda. Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Jewish settlements and Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank have dramatically changed the surrounding borders. VOA'S Jeff Swicord takes a look at how one Palestinian family near Jerusalem has been affected.

Since the 1920s, Mohamad Askar's family has lived and worked on this land near Jerusalem.

"The land is our life. We are agricultural, we eat from it, we live on it," says the Palestinian farmer.

His father and grandfather lived here in Bedouin tents. In 1972, he built a stone house on land that was part of the West Bank village of Hezma. Several years later, Israeli settlers built housing on the surrounding land. As those settlements expanded, the Israeli government moved the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem to include them. Today, Mohamad's once-remote West Bank home is surrounded by Israeli neighborhoods. His house is now within the boundaries of East Jerusalem, inside Israel proper.

He says the Israeli Housing Authority has tried to buy his land twice. Each time, he refused. "Several times they came to my house and sat here where we are. They put a check to sign in front of me and told me to fill in the amount of money I want for my house and land. The representative from the Israeli Housing Authority told me, 'You cannot live with the Jews’."

Mohamad says Israel has taken 70 percent of the land that once belonged to the village of Hezma. Most of his family now has Israeli identity cards. Without them they could not legally live or even enter Israel. Two of his sons do not have them. The brothers live across the street and over the separation barrier in Hezma. They must have special permission to visit their father inside Israel.

"When they get permission to come, they receive their names at the checkpoint,” explains the father. “But sometimes the shift changes and there are different soldiers manning the checkpoint. Then, they have difficulties."

Avrahaam Kirayati, a prominent Israeli lawyer, says the settlements around Jerusalem are perfectly legal under Israeli law. He says West Bank lands that were not registered as belonging to Palestinians during the British Mandate period, became Israeli land under Israeli law after the 1967 Arab/Israeli war.

"Those lands not registered under the Mandate law as belonging to persons, like him and me, those were decided to be called state lands,” says the lawyer. “And those state lands were allocated for building the new quarters around Jerusalem."

Avrahaam acknowledges that Palestinians like Mohamad are in a difficult situation. In his mind, the most likely scenario to come out of a peace agreement will be that people like Mohamed will become Palestinian citizens living in the state of Israel.

But Mohamad will have none of that. "I am Palestinian as my father and my grandfathers were. And Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine. I will not leave Jerusalem. I will stay Palestinian, as will my sons," he says.

Mohamad understands the fate of his family may be in the hands of the peace process. Not a comforting thought, given the failures of the past. So he holds tight to the one commodity that defines all people of this region and hopes for the best.

"I hope that peace will happen between Jews and Arabs. But that is out of my hands. What is in my hands, what I have now, is my land."

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