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On February 5, soldiers appeared to the south of the little village of Mutilla in the northern Palestinian Authority and southeast of Mt. Gilboa, adjacent to the Green Line. They called to the owners of the land by megaphone to come and pick up orders for appropriating their lands. The distance between the last house of the village and the place where the soldiers stood is about 300 meters, but the villagers refused to approach the soldiers.

After the soldiers had left, several of the village children were sent to the place the soldiers had left - a gently sloping mountain, planted with olive trees. For about four months, Israeli contractors have been working in the Mutilla area on the northern part of the fence, which according to the maps is exactly on the Green Line but in fact lies several dozen meters south of the line. In these "few dozen meters," they have uprooted olive trees belonging to residents of the small village. Their principal source of livelihood - agricultural work as hired hands in the Beit She'an Valley communities - has been eliminated by the restrictions on movement during the past three years.

"There's work, there's no road," they say in the village. The "few dozen meters" also separate the residents from the lands where they were accustomed to grazing their sheep, and from several plots of land where they used to plant vegetables and wheat. Now even these sources of livelihood will be affected. The approximately 20 men who live in the village, who work in the PA as policemen and clerks, earn about NIS 1,000 a month.

"And what can you do with NIS 1,000," asks Abtisam, about 35, the wife of the local muezzin. Abu Musa is 77 years old. "This year we didn't even plant," he said in pain, pointing at the flattened green plot on the opposite slope. A white strip of what will be the security road, between trees and fields, separates him from his land. Rewan is only a year and a half old; one quarter of her life, says her mother Abtisam, has already been spent in the shadow of the explosions, the uprooting of trees and the stories about her cousins and her uncles, shepherds, whom were driven away from their grazing lands by frightening guards.

She already says words like "they exploded," and "bulldozer." Words that are absorbed more than are the words that her eight-year-old brother reads to her from an illustrated children's book about the adventures of happy children. On February 5, the older children of the village were sent to look for what the soldiers had left behind. They found a plastic envelope attached to one of the trees with wire.

The envelope contained seven papers: two pages of an order "regarding appropriation of lands No. 40/40/T" in Hebrew, the two pages translated into Arabic, two colored maps and a handwritten announcement about a visit to be made by representatives of the Israeli civil liaison office (in other words, the Coordination and Liaison Administration, known by its Hebrew acronym, Matak - another name for the former Civil Administration), on February 8.

The announcement mentions in brief what is detailed in the orders: the numbers of blocs and plots in each section that the army is "appropriating." On the maps - one on a scale of 1:25,000 and the other on a scale of 1:5,000 - the appropriated area looks like a winding snake with a big belly: 1,400 meters in length, with a maximum width of 230 meters. According to the order, 141.6 dunams will be appropriated.

Compensation, confiscation

The villagers insist on calling the move "confiscation of lands" rather than "appropriation of real estate." They don't believe that anyone will return their land to them. This despite the fact that this order, which is signed by Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, head of the Israel Defense Forces Central Command, claims that it is in effect "from the day it is signed until December 13, 2005."

The order authorizes the "Jenin Matak" to inform the residents of the order "insofar as possible." The order, which was signed on January 3 and reached the hands of the residents on February 5, gave them seven days from the day of the visit (which is also specifically mentioned in the order, in Article 5 a), to submit objections. The residents didn't bother to do so. "The army is taking our lands, who will listen to us?"

Article 7 enables the residents "to turn to the Jenin Matak in order to find out about their right to receive money for use of the land, and compensation." The residents say that they have no intention of asking for money for use of land and compensation, despite their deteriorating economic situation. They interpret compensation or payment for use as an act of sale, which they are convinced the Israeli authorities will flaunt when the time comes.

The residents of Mutilla originate from the village of Raba, to the south. Their great-great grandfathers used to wander with the herds, until they settled about 20 kilometers from the parent community. At first they and their descendants lived in caves or tent encampments.

Later they began to build houses out of thick stones, with arched windows and dome-like roofs. The newer houses - some no more than one large room - are built from simple concrete. One family grew over the years to 300 souls, all of them brothers and cousins, members of the Al-Bzur family.

They own about 500 dunams, they say - the land was bought over the years from the village of Mughayer. According to their estimate, they will lose at least 250-500 of these dunams to the separation fence; some that were explicitly taken over, some that they are losing behind the fence, and some that lie between the fence and the village lands.

They say that since the start of preparations for the fence, the security guards and the Border Police have been ensuring that they are kept away from these lands; like the shepherds who dared to approach with their herd, and one of the village elders who went with his donkey to pick grass to bring to his sheep, who aren't allowed to graze. In addition to the lost dunams, their approach to grazing lands located in the broad area defined as "state lands" is being blocked.

All the lands between them and Mughayer, to the east, are agricultural lands, planted with vegetables and grains, out of bounds to the flocks of sheep and their shepherds. "In the final analysis, we will remain with the houses and the land in the back yard," says Abu Musa bitterly, pointing at the hens running around in the rocky plot around his house.

The contractor says

This problem - preventing access to lands that officially were "not appropriated" - was brought up, say the residents, at a meeting with representatives of Matak. As they wrote in their announcement, they came to the place and met with representatives of the Palestinian Liaison Office who were quickly brought in from Jenin.

The existence of gates in the western fence is no guarantee that they will be opened. And last Wednesday, February 25, they came to saw the trees. Three workers and two armed guards showed up on the southern hill; with an electric saw they cut off the branches of some of the trees, exactly at the point where the separation fence will branch off, sending one long arm deep into the West Bank. The villagers know that at the next stage, the driver of the bulldozer will come and uproot the trees: it's easier to uproot them this way.

A few days ago, one of the shepherds - who dared to go a little further with his sheep - met the new contractor. The villagers know that each section of the fence is being built by a different contractor. The villagers say that the new contractor told him "to tell the Border Police and the guards that the contractor Rahamim from Afula said we're allowed to graze and to approach our lands, that they won't bother us." Nevertheless, there are still people who are afraid to approach the route of the fence. They're afraid that the Border Police or the security guards will shoot at them.

"Do you know why this contractor is allowing us to approach the fence?" explained R., who is about 55 years old. "Because he's a Jew. The contractor of the previous section of the fence is an Arab."

But Abu Musa says: "I don't believe the talk that `we're allowed.' I believe in deeds, in what happens. And what is happening is that they aren't allowing us to get to our lands. These are our lands, and they're telling us to get out of them. I'm a simple man, a fallah [farmer], but I have learned to what extent might is above law and justice. There is no public transport to the village, because we can't afford to pay for taxis. Our children go to the neighboring villages on foot, to school. I haven't seen that anything comes of humane talk and nice words."

A few years ago, members of the Palestinian planning office came here, they say in the village. They talked about building a vacation site, right on the summit of the mountain from which on a clear day you can see Mt. Hermon and the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. That would have provided independent work for some of the residents.

It would have strengthened the regional Palestinian economy. An economic foundation for political independence and development, as was written in all the texts that launched the Oslo Accords. R., although he was born in the village, continues to admire its beauty. The hidden cyclamen flowers, the deep brown color of the land between the olive trees and the rocks, the yellow and pink flowers that dot the rich green expanse growing between the rocks and the trees, the pungent, heady smell of the za'atar bushes.

Some are wild bushes, some were planted by the residents. "When I fought with my wife, for example, or with one of my brothers, when I was angry, I came out here and forgot all my troubles." He points to the mountain behind the fence. Now that, too, has been taken from him, the place where he could forget his troubles.

The Defense Ministry spokesman said that "appropriation of the lands in the village of Mutilla is being carried out in the context of construction of the fence from Mt. Avner, at the southeastern edge of Mt. Gilboa, in the direction of Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi. The topography in the area creates engineering and security limitations, which require us to carry out the engineering work on the fence along this route."

The planned route of the northern separation fence branches off into two arms - one will continue more or less parallel to the Green Line, up to the Jordan River. A second arm of the fence is supposed to continue south, deep into the territory of the West Bank.

The route already approved by the government reaches the villages of Tiasir and Aqaba, a distance of about 15 km from the eastern border of the State of Israel. It looks like the beginning of the eastern fence, which is supposed to separate the Jordan Valley from the West Bank. The designated fence will surround Mutilla on three sides.

The Palestinians in the village are afraid that despite the criticism both in Israel and abroad, the Israeli government will continue to build the fence undisturbed, and will build the southern arm as well.

Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shira Segal-Kuperman, said in response that the freeze orders were not issued for the purpose of building the southern arm of the fence and this is not a matter of building an eastern fence.

She said the 2004 work plan doesn't include building the arm that goes southward. In regard to the eastern fence as a whole, the spokeswoman said that the plan "was never presented to the government, and therefore was not approved by it. The defense establishment operates only on the basis of the route approved and finalized in the government." (A.H.)