Tiny Settlement Caught on Wrong Side of Fence

The Har Homa housing settlement is disputed territory, an island of Israeli land within the Palestinian-controlled West Bank.

It is a microcosm of the obstacles to the peace agreement President Bush is here to broker.

"Negotiations must ensure borders, and that Palestine is reliable, contiguous, sovereign and independent," Bush said today, after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The word "contiguous" is especially problematic here on the West Bank. Living within a security fence that surrounds Har Homa, for years, are Arab villagers who have been cut off from the rest of the West Bank in the village of Noman, just outside the housing complex, on land Israel calls its own. A security fence was built to protect the settlement.

The road to Jerusalem is blocked off by a gate erected in 1994. The last house the Israeli government has allowed to stand here rests about 50 feet away — frozen in mid-construction since 1994.

For Arab villagers living inside the fenced-in settlement, that means they have to go through this Israeli checkpoint to go to school in the Palestinian territories, or to buy food.

Fatima Darawi was born in a cave near her current home in Noman, and has lived here for 75 years.

"The Israelis want to treat us like a tree, deprived of water," she said. "They have taken our land and humiliated us. ... They've made it a living hell here."

The Israeli settlement that overshadows her home is growing. In some parts, construction cranes line the perimeter. These hills are reserved for future expansion.

The Har Homa settlement, nestled in the scenic hills between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, is being allowed to have what the Israeli government calls "natural growth" of new homes. But build one in the Arab sector, and the Israeli Ministry of Interior will tear it down. The Israelis don't want the Palestinians to expand their numbers on this disputed ground.

Just ask Yusuf Darawi. He built a home next door to his own, for his brother. Last year, workers from the Israeli Department of Interior reduced it to rubble.

"He lives in another village in the West Bank now," Darawi said.

For Darawi, there is an almost poetic irony. He is a building contractor. By night, he lives here. By day, he helps construct the settlement that, he says, is pushing his family from their land.