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Six Day War: Land Ownership Disputes Arise

In the Six Day War of June 1967, Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, capturing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. For Israel, it was a stunning triumph; for Arabs, a humiliating defeat.

Israel no longer occupies the Sinai or Gaza, but its continued hold over the other territories has stymied efforts to bring comprehensive peace to the Middle East.

The fourth part of a five-part series on the Six Day War follows.

The end of the 1967 war and the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip brought dramatic changes to the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis.

In the West Bank, Israel confiscated large chunks of agricultural land where settlements were eventually built. For some Israelis, the occupation meant a chance to return to the homeland of their ancestors.

The Palestinian village of Turmus Aya and the neighboring Jewish settlement of Shilo were among those areas affected. As in other areas, land ownership disputes are many.

"My land is where the pine trees are that you can see right here," says Mahmoud Hazameh, 68. "These pine trees I planted myself. There's also another piece of land on the other side of the mountain, which has been taken also from me."

Hazameh said he grew grapes, chickpeas and wheat on that land, before the 1967 war – and continued to farm it after. He takes out yellowing documents dating back to the Ottoman Empire that he claims prove his ownership.

But in the mid-1970s, Israel confiscated most of his land, he said. Hazameh hired a lawyer and tried to get it back. Even after he lost in court, he still tried to farm the land that was no longer his, he said.

"I didn't stop," Hazameh says. "I started taking six and seven tractors with a lot of workers and I started marching towards my land — the land that had fed my whole community and my ancestors."

But the settlers uprooted his crops and the police refused to help him, he said. Eventually, he gave up.

Even today, 40 years after the 1967 war, the question of land ownership in the West Bank is one of the most highly charged and complex issues.

An Israeli government spokesman says the land of Shilo was built exclusively on what is known as "state land." That means it either belonged to the Jordanian government before 1967 or to Palestinians who fled the West Bank during or after the war.

But Peace Now, a dovish Israeli group that opposes the settlements, says most settlements are built on a combination of state land and private Palestinian land. In the case of the Shilo settlement, Peace Now says more than one-quarter of the land belongs to Palestinians like Hazameh.

Turmus Aya is just 10 miles from the Palestinians financial and political capital Ramallah. There, farmers still raise the same crops their fathers and grandfathers did. The homes are large — built for extended families —- with outdoor terraces shaded by grape arbors.

Mayor Mohammed Jamil Ibrahim says the village is 400 years old, and that life was peaceful until the June day in 1967 when Israeli soldiers first entered the village.

"People were in panic. People were scared," Ibrahim says. "People had heard a lot of stories from the refugees of 1948 (about) how the Israelis ... acted aggressively against the people of Deir Yassin and the people of Kibya, so they expected a lot of aggression."

Hundreds of residents fled to Jordan, where many remain today, Ibrahim says. For those who stayed, life changed dramatically in 1975 when a group of fervently religious Jews started an archaeological excavation on a nearby hill. Ibrahim says soon after the settlers appeared, Israeli officials came to reassure the residents of TurMus Aya about their new neighbors.

"At the beginning, the military chief of this area would say, 'They are looking for artifacts. Don't annoy them. Don't disturb them.' Slowly, slowly, their caravans started coming and their caravans became permanent. Then they started building houses and so on and so forth," Ibrahim says.

As the settlement began to encroach on Palestinian land, Israeli officials offered compensation but the residents refused, Ibrahim says.

The mayor says there were never any friendships between the Palestinians and the settlers. But he said dozens of young men from the village did go to work in Shilo. This ended with the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s.

Israeli soldiers entered the village frequently, searching for Palestinians involved in attacks on Israelis. Soldiers built a large, dirt barricade making it impossible for villagers to reach the main road between Ramallah and Nablus.

Today, amid a relative lull in the violence, a few Palestinians have returned to work in Shilo's aluminum factory. But none of them is from Turmus Aya.

Yakov Yarden, one of Shilo's first settlers, says he misses the Palestinian friends he made before the violence engulfed the West Bank.

"The Arabs usually worked here, but we came to them also — to their weddings and other things," Yarden says.

For many religious Israelis, the lightning victory of the 1967 war was proof of divine intervention.

Jews could return to live in places mentioned in the Bible. Beginning in the mid-1970s, they began building Jewish settlements all over the West Bank. Today, more than a quarter-million Israelis live in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem.

Shilo has grown to 250 families, and the settlement now has its own yeshiva, or rabbinical training institute. One of Shilo's founders, Shevach Stern, said the settlers always hoped to have good relations with their Arab neighbors. At the beginning, the villagers of Turmus Aya welcomed them, he says.

"They liked the idea that we were here," Stern says. "Because they knew, from other places, that wherever the Israel comes, progress comes. They knew that the village would get electricity and water – they would get work here and that's how it was for quite a few years."

Settlers say that all changed with the first intifada. Since then, eight settlers from Shilo and five Palestinians from Turmus Aya have been killed. Dozens have been wounded, among them David Rubin. Five years ago, he was on his way home from Jerusalem when his car came under a hail of bullets. Both he and his then 3-year-old son were gravely wounded.

Today, Rubin spends his days teaching Christian groups about the Biblical importance of Shilo. Living in the settlement means a daily connection to Jewish history, he says.

"When my children walk down to school every day, they go down the hill and every day I think, 'Wow. This is amazing. My children are walking down the same rocks that Samuel the prophet walked on when he grew up in Shilo,'" Rubin says.

Rubin, and many other settlers, say the entire West Bank should be placed under permanent Israeli sovereignty. But their Palestinian neighbors in TurMus Aya say there can be no peace unless all of the Jewish settlers leave.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Gradstein
Linda Gradstein has been the Israel correspondent for NPR since 1990. She is a member of the team that received the Overseas Press Club award for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the team that received Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her coverage of the Gulf War. Linda spent 1998-9 as a Knight Journalist Fellow at Stanford University.