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Palestinian village caught amid Israel settlements

QARIOUT, West Bank - QARIOUT, West Bank (AP) — In this West Bank village surrounded by Israeli settlements, a Palestinian farmer says he has documents proving he owns his land. On a nearby hill, Jewish settler Batya Medad says she too has proof of ownership — the Old Testament.

This quarrel over the land Palestinians claim for their future state is the chief roadblock in Middle East peace efforts.

Mohammed Muqbil was born in this West Bank village in 1939; Medad has lived in neighboring Shiloh since its creation four decades later. They speak different languages and have never met, though their homes lie less than a mile apart.

And between them lies the harsh conflict over Israel's West Bank settlements.

The Palestinians have refused to resume negotiations until all settlement building stops. Last month, Israel's government announced a 10-month halt to new construction in hopes of bringing the Palestinians to the table. But east Jerusalem and some 3,000 homes already under construction were exempt and the Palestinians rejected it.

Qariout, a rocky village of 2,600 people about 20 miles north of Jerusalem, illustrates why Palestinians are desperate to halt the spread of Jewish settlements.

Beyond the political issue of their effect on borders for any future Palestinian state, settlements restrict daily life in hundreds of West Bank villages and gobble up farmland — Qariout has lost two-thirds of its land since 1979.

That was the year Shiloh was founded — the first settlement created in the area. Two other settlements have since sprung up, along with six smaller wildcat outposts, which, although illegal under Israeli law, get electricity, water and protection from the government.

Together, they surround Qariout on three sides and deny it access to about two-thirds of its land, according to the Israeli rights group Yesh Din, which tracks settlements.

The Israeli government has officially allocated 28 percent of the village's original 2,100 acres to nearby settlements, said Dror Etkes of Yesh Din. Another 35 to 40 percent has been taken unofficially by settlers or the Israeli army, he said.

Settlers sometimes fence off or cultivate plots, chasing off Palestinians who try to reach them, Etkes said. At other times, Israeli authorities seize land to build army posts or roads between settlements. Once a road is built, villagers can rarely reach the land beyond it, he said.

At the same time, Israel refuses to let the village pave the mile-long road to the highway and regularly bulldozes it shut, calling it "illegal" and forcing villagers to make a 13-mile detour.

Muqbil said he has lost two of his three plots to settlements. The army confiscated one in 1982 and settlers now grow grapes on it. Settlers chased him from another in 2003, then planted olive trees, he said.

His remaining plot, near the Shvut Rachel settlement, has been a battleground since 2000. Settlers have plowed up his wheat, harvested his olives, prevented him from working and even beat him up, he said. In 2007, a settler uprooted his 300 trees with a bulldozer.

Muqbil's father farmed the plots before the 70-year-old farmer was born, and Muqbil said he has documents from Israel and Jordan, ruler of the West Bank until 1967, proving his ownership.

He also keeps an inch-thick stack of Israeli police reports he filed after each incident — all to no avail, he said.

Yesh Din has documented 14 incidents near Qariout of criminal trespassing and attacks on Palestinians by settlers in the last two years.

But complaints rarely bear fruit.

An Israeli police statement said that of 60 cases involving damaged trees in the West Bank over the past three years, only three brought indictments. That's because the vandalism is often carried out at night by "lone perpetrators" and Palestinians sometimes wait months or years to file complaints, the statement said.

Neta Patrick of Yesh Din's legal team said "such investigations are not the top priority of the Israeli police." Investigators rarely collect forensic evidence or check settlers' alibis when looking into alleged settler crimes, she said.

Muqbil now reaches his remaining field only a few times a year, in coordination with the army. He has planted 70 new olive trees, which won't produce for five years. He worries they won't live that long.

"I'm scared they'll tear them out again," he said.

Shmaya Tiran, a spokesman for the Shvut Rachel settlement, said Muqbil's claims are "lies he tells the media."

"He invaded our land and planted crops, not the other way around. This land belongs to us, not to him. Nobody here attacked him," he said.

Some Israelis view the settlements as a front line of defense against their enemies; others call them a religious imperative.

In Shiloh, a town of 2,200 people, billboards advertise new homes, and foundations have been laid for about 10 new buildings. The community has two schools, a seminary, three synagogues and a swimming pool, said Medad.

The Bible gives Jews the right to live in Shiloh, she said.

"In most of the Western world, when you swear on the Bible, you are swearing that Shiloh is Jewish," she said.

Medad and her husband immigrated from Great Neck, N.Y., to Israel in 1970. She said when they came to Shiloh the hills were covered with wildflowers because "nobody had ever walked here, nobody had cultivated it, nobody owned it."

She is 60 and vows no peace deal can make her leave.

"I don't need anybody's permission to live here. The Jewish people have a long, long history. We don't have to listen to upstarts," she said.

Behind Medad stood about 30 trailers for new residents waiting for homes, followed by rows of greenhouses. Shiloh and its neighbors are surrounded by security roads lined with surveillance cameras, concertina wire and guard dogs every 30 yards to keep Palestinians away and prevent attacks.

Medad denied her Arab neighbors had history in the area and said she rarely thinks about them.

"If they want to live in peace with us, they can stay," she said. "If they don't want peace, then they should go."

In Qariout, Mayor Abdelnasser Bedawi says true peace would require settlers to leave. "How can you make a state when there are settlements all over the West Bank?" he asked.

He recalled his childhood when he'd swim in a local spring and play in a field where his family grew wheat and tomatoes.

Today, he doesn't let his 7-year-old son leave the village for fear he'll run into settlers. He's not sure where the boy would go anyway: Both the field and the spring now lie inside Shiloh.

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Associated Press writer Ian Deitch contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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