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Umm al-Fahm mayor, Sheikh Hashem Abd a-Rahman, welcomed on Monday a recommendation of an Interior Ministry-appointed panel to grant more land to several Arab local councils in the Wadi Ara region.

The committee, established three years ago and headed by Professor Yosef Ginat, finished its work several months ago, and submitted its conclusions to Interior Minister Avraham Poraz.

The Interior Ministry waited until Monday, immediately ahead of Land Day, to disclose the committee's findings.

"I'm pleased and grateful, there are new policies... and new terms: instead of 'confiscation' we have 'extension' and 'annexation,'" the Umm al-Fahm mayor said on Monday.

The Higher Monitoring Committee for Arab Affairs in Israel also welcomed the panel's recommendation, but stressed that it would wait for real actions before applauding the decision.

The confiscation which covered some 500 dunams of land, was approved by then-IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz and sparked violent clashes between police and Arab residents of the region.

The committee also recommended that some land be taken from Jewish councils in the area (Meggido and Menashe) and used to facilitate development of towns and villages in Arab councils from Wadi Ara. Land that currently lacks municipal status should also be designated in a way that allows development of these Arab councils, the committee concluded.

Maps of the area indicate that the committee proposes enlarging these Arab councils by some 28,000 dunam: Umm al-Fahm is to gain 9,000 dunams; Ma'ale Iron will gain 5,400 dunams, A'ara and Ararah will gain 7,000 dunams.

A study undertaken by Dr. Yair Baumel for Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Equal Opportunity, has examined the negotiation process to defuse land disputes in the Wadi Ara area.

The negotiations began following 1998 clashes during protests against land appropriations. Negotiations ensued between the State of Israel and the public committee for the defense of lands of al-Ruha, along with local Arab councils from Wadi Ara. These talks, Baumel claims, set an "historic precedent" in that the State of Israel negotiated with a non-statutory Arab body, the al-Ruha public committee.

The talks culminated in a decision to separate land used by the IDF from that used by civilians, and in the establishment of the special committee to investigate the possibility of enlarging Arab council land along the Wadi Ara highway.

Saliman Pahamawi, chair of the al-Ruha lands defense committee, said Monday: "We are waiting for the interior minister to confirm the recommendations submitted by the committee."