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Bethlehem resident in 30-year fight to defend land

June 13, 2011 2:07 P.M. (Updated: June 19, 2011 2:50 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Maher Mohammed Seb'a says he will stay on his land despite 30 years of harassment, intimidation and bribery by Israeli forces seeking to displace him.

On June 2, Maher said he woke up to find more than 250 of his olive trees destroyed by settlers. He said he was shocked, but not surprised.

An area of agricultural land south of Al-Khader, the Bethlehem-area land known as Khirbet A'liya next to the Jewish-only settlement of Efrata. Built more than seven kilometers inside the West Bank, the illegal settlement has annexed more than 2,000 dunums of private Palestinian land, and thousands more of village lands.

The network of settler-only roads leading to the settlement, and the growing path of construction of Israel’s separation wall have further encroached on the area.

Maher Mohammed Seb'a, 48, has been at the forefront of resisting a campaign by settlers, the Israeli army, and Israeli courts to seize Khirbet A'liya and expand settler infrastructure.

His struggle began in 1982 when his house, built on land his father purchased in 1962, was confiscated by the Israeli army after members of the Palestinian resistance movement used it to fire at soldiers.

In 1998, the Israeli military built a base on part of his land. Through court action, Maher said, he managed to expel them in 2002 by proving his ownership.

Despite the legal success, repeated attacks on his property by settlers followed. In 2004, one such attack nearly resulted in his death when 30 armed settlers assaulted him and his nephew as they worked on the home. The Israeli military eventually intervened in the incident, but informed Maher that he was forbidden to return to the area because his safety could not be guaranteed, he recalls.

After being unable to visit Khirbet A'liya, Maher said he received a a claim from settler groups that they had a deed to the land.

Maher said he complained to Israel's Civil Administration, but was told that since he had not been on the land in years, it had been declared 'absentee property.' It was registered under his father’s name, and his father had long since died.

In order to contest the claim, Maher said, he had to pay 80,000 shekels ($23,285) to transfer ownership to his name.

Now the official owner of the land, Maher said he was offered huge sums of money by the Civil Administration from their offices in the Etzion settlement bloc, to sell up. In addition to being offered over $30 million, he told Ma'an that his family was also offered Israeli passports. He said he declined all of the overtures.

Despite his refusal to sell the land, Maher said eight dunums were still confiscated, he said in order to build a street to connect to the nearby settlement of Efrata. He was then offered $250,000 to build a street which would pass directly through his land, but again refused the offer, he said.

In his most recent struggle in the Israeli courts, Maher managed to save part of his land from confiscation for construction of the separation wall. He said he is still awaiting a response to an amended plan for the route of the wall, which stopped west of Al-Khader.

He told Ma'an that the Bethlehem governorate had promised to pay him 68,000 shekels ($20,000) to provide his home with power and water, but that he has only received a check of 6,800 shekels to cover part of the cost.

"Over the years I could have become a rich man,” he said, adding that he preferred to join the many Palestinians who have remained steadfast in their refusal to be displaced.
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