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Slayings Show Struggle in West Bank

August 6, 1998

AIN AFOOS, West Bank (AP) _ The Jewish settlement is on the hilltop, the Palestinian village is in the valley, and violence is the middle ground on which they meet.

Israelis awakened Wednesday to the news that a pair of young Jewish settlers had been gunned down overnight, shot at close range as they patrolled the outskirts of their isolated enclave.

The funerals _ always held swiftly here, for Muslim and Jew alike _ provoked both dismay and resolve from politicians and an outpouring of grief from Israelis. The Israeli and Palestinian governments engaged in a ritual round of finger-pointing.

But far less attention was paid to the slayings’ larger backdrop: the grinding, low-level war that plays itself out daily on the periphery of settlements scattered throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It’s a war of attrition: a sheep slaughtered, an olive tree uprooted, a road carved out of a hillside, a field burned. Taunts and fisticuffs, demonstrations and lawsuits.

And sometimes, a flareup of deadly force.

The Palestinian village of Ain Afoos nestles below a steep-sided hilltop that is home to the Jewish settlement of Itzhar. Literally and figuratively, the villagers feel constantly in its shadow.

``Once, these hills were holy places, where hermits would come to pray,″ said Hashem Ahlan, 65, the patriarch of a Palestinian clan and owner of a swath of farmland on the village’s edge. ``Look what happens here now.″

Part of what makes the conflict so intractable is that neither side acknowledges any legitimacy to the other’s claims.

Itzhar is a close-knit community of about 300 people, virtually all religious Jews with what they consider a biblical claim to the West Bank. The Palestinians, already feeling dispossessed and deprived, consider even a small settlement like Itzhar an all-encompassing threat.

For as long as almost anyone can remember, there has been bad blood between villagers in the valley and settlers above.

The villagers accuse the settlers of a systematic campaign to seize their land, by terrorizing them if necessary. The settlers deny any aggressive acts, and say Wednesday’s killings show they are the ones under siege.

Ahlan, the farmer, clad in a long white robe and sandals, showed a scar on his arm where he says a settler’s bullet grazed him six years ago. He said he’d rather fight them in court than on the ground.

When settlers set up trailers on his land, he went to Israel’s Supreme Court and won an eviction order, which the Israeli army carried out.

The settlers of Itzhar have their own fears and grievances. The Israeli army, they say, has denied some of them permits for weapons they say they need for self-defense. Surrounded by Palestinian villages, their isolation sometimes turns edgy.

Ahlan called Wednesday’s shooting ``very bad, very dangerous,″ predicting it would spur settlers’ efforts to acquire more land. Israeli media reported that within hours of the shooting, the settlement had asked for government permission to expand.

The conflict in these hills, which fall within Israeli-controlled territory, spills over into the nearby Palestinian-run city of Nablus, six miles away.

The slain settlers were both students at Joseph’s Tomb, a Jewish seminary in Nablus that has been a focal point of past confrontations between Palestinians and Jewish settlers.

Six Israeli soldiers died in fighting with Palestinian troops in 1996 at the enclave, near what Jews believe is the burial site of the biblical figure Joseph.

After Wednesday’s shooting, the government dispatched a team of social workers to the settlement to try to calm passions.

``Everyone is angry and uncertain and disconcerted,″ said social worker Pinchas Gerber, who arrived at the settlement before dawn Wednesday to set up counseling sessions.

Beneath a tree on one of the settlement’s streets, 9-year-old Pinchas Mansovsky scratched his sunburned nose as he watched the adults preparing for the afternoon burial.

His eyes were red and swollen, but he said that was sleepiness, not sadness. The commotion after the shootings kept him awake most of the night.

``That’s all it is,″ he said. ``I’m not afraid to live here.″

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