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Israeli army to reoccupy base near Bethlehem

Jan. 31, 2010 9:37 P.M. (Updated: Feb. 3, 2010 9:20 A.M.)
Bethlehem – Ma'an – Israel's army plans to reoccupy an abandoned military base near Bethlehem, security sources said on Sunday, in a move certain to please settlers seeking to establish themselves in the district.

An Israeli military spokeswoman told Ma'an that the army will rebuild parts of a base in Beit Sahour known as Oush Al-Ghrab "in order to ensure security in the area, according to all of the estimates of officials in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]."

On Friday, activists aligned with the right-wing settler groups Women in Green and the Committee for Jewish Shdema were in the area for a tree-planting ceremony, part of their weekly efforts to prevent Oush Al-Ghrab "from falling into Arab hands," the settler-affiliated Arutz Sheva news agency reported. Before the ceremony, they marched to the site, which they call Shdema, from the Har Homa settlement, also in Bethlehem.

"Placing an outpost at Shdema is a sign that Shdema will, with G-d's help, become a thriving community – and this is happening thanks to the determined and unflagging activity of the Council for a Jewish Shdema," said Gush Etzion settlement leader Shaul Goldstein, according to the news agency.

"The Council for a Jewish Shdema has succeeded in its mission and it can now continue and become the 'Council for a Jewish Jenin' or 'for a Jewish Shechem [Nablus]'," he reportedly added, "half-jokingly."

Oush Al-Ghrab is a former Jordanian military base that was taken over by Israel during its 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Israel's military evacuated the post in April 2006. After the evacuation, the Israeli authorities allowed the Beit Sahour municipality, with support from the US Agency for International Development, to build a park, which has become a popular destination for local Palestinians.

Beit Sahour Mayor Hani Al-Hayek told Ma'an that "the Israeli occupation forces say they withdrew from the base in April 2006, but they didn't leave it completely. Settlers, on an ongoing basis, go there every Friday."

Al-Hayek added, however, that he doubted the army would actually follow through with the plan. "If they intend to reoccupy it, as in the past, this would harm the peace process and further divide the two parties, as well as inflame public opinion" against negotiations with Israel, he said.

According to the mayor's legal advisor, Farid Al-Atrash, "This plan constitutes a violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit moving populations into occupied territory. It is also a violation of signed agreements with the [Palestinian] Authority."

In addition to the park on the slope just below the base, the area is designated for further development. In December 2007, the American Christian group CURE International announced it would donate 16 million US dollars to build a hospital on the hillside. In total, 65 dunams (65,000 square meters) have been designated for the hospital and other development, except for the hilltop, the location of the abandoned base.

In May 2008, however, settler groups began to arrive at the base. The settlers have organized a series of visits on Fridays, culminating in late 2008 in a tour titled "Shdema – a Jewish City." Dozens of Israeli settlers, some of them armed, took over the abandoned base for several hours the same month.

According to the Committee for Jewish Shdema, in a statement, "Two targets have been met thus far." "Ensuring that the land is not transferred to Arabs and maintaining a Jewish presence there."

Oush Al-Ghrab is in Area C, designated by the Oslo Interim Agreement to be under full Israeli control until a final peace agreement compels Israel to withdraw completely from the West Bank.
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