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In West Bank, Tensions Run High Before U.N. Vote

Sep 21, 2011
Originally published on September 26, 2011 12:44 pm

With a diplomatic showdown looming at the United Nations, Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank both see their futures at stake, and emotions are running high.

In the Jewish settlement of Itamar this week, residents staged a march around what they call "the neighborhood." About 200 people were walking past hillside homes, separated by less than a mile from the large Palestinian city of Nablus.

Moshe Goldsmith, the mayor of Itamar, said the march was meant to show the world that the settlers are opposed to any U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.

"As the Palestinians try to announce statehood, we are making an announcement to the world that, let's not forget, the land of Israel is a Jewish homeland. And we are here to stay," he said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas plans to make the request for U.N. membership and statehood after he speaks to the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Friday. The U.S. says it will block the move in the U.N. Security Council, thought the Palestinians could also go to the General Assembly and seek the lesser status of "non-member observer state."

Either way, the move will be largely symbolic. But when it comes to the long-running feud between the Israelis and the Palestinians, everything is contested.

Since Israeli forces captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, some 500,000 Israelis have moved into these areas. The Palestinians are seeking this land, along with the Gaza Strip, for a future state.

Soldiers Protect Settlers

The Jewish settlements are well-guarded by the Israeli army. Soldiers flanked the settlers as they marched from Itamar to an army checkpoint at the entrance to Nablus.

At this point, a small group of young Jewish men from the settlement took over a traffic circle, where they began to sing and dance. Israeli soldiers said they had stopped all Palestinian traffic far from the intersection to avoid a confrontation.

David Melchi, 21, urged his friends to camp out at the intersection until Friday, when Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are both scheduled to speak at the U.N.

The settlers eventually left peacefully, though they promised to return.

But just a few miles down the road, a group of settlers attempted to attack a Palestinian home on the edge of the Palestinian village of al-Sira.

The settlers soon fled, with several of them using their T-shirts to cover their faces. One waved the orange flag of the settlement movement as he ran behind three Israeli army jeeps that stood between the settlers and the Palestinian village.

Within a few minutes, Israeli soldiers fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of young Palestinian men responding to the attempted attack by the settlers .

Tom Andrews, a pro-Palestinian activist, said the attempted attack on the Yousef family home had been one of several in the past week. The house has been targeted because it is one of the closest homes to the Jewish settlement.

"The settlers seem to feel that the U.N. vote is far more of a threat to them than the Palestinians feel that it is promising for themselves," said Andrews. "A lot of attacks at the moment are coming purely from the settlements around Nablus."

Palestinians Hold Large Rallies

Palestinians, meanwhile, are staging their own rallies. Residents of al-Sira went to Nablus to join tens of thousands of fellow Palestinians in the streets to celebrate the upcoming U.N. bid.

The streets of Ramallah, another major West Bank city, were also teeming with men, women and children waving Palestinian flags. A 15-foot statue of a blue and white chair stood in the city's main square, a mock-up of the seat the Palestinians hope to win at the U.N.

Reem Majnus, 25, said she has been uplifted by the support for the Palestinians' U.N. bid. But she said she was worried about efforts by the United States and some European nations to thwart the Palestinian effort.

"It is ironic that the United States has supported the Arab spring, but now it is standing against us as we try to have our own chance at a state," she said.

As she spoke, a group of young boys tried to hurl miniature Palestinian flags onto the huge chair. Majnus said that even Palestinian youths know that Palestine needs a chance to sit at the U.N.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

The Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition is, not surprisingly, shaking up life in the West Bank. As Sheera Frenkel reports, emotions are running high on both sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEERA FRENKEL: There's a carnival atmosphere in the West Bank Israeli settlement of Itamar this week, as residents began a march around what they call the neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRENKEL: About 200 people are walking past the hillside homes, separated by less than a mile from the Palestinian city of Nablus. Moshe Goldsmith is the mayor of Itamar. He says the march is meant to show the world that the settlers are defiantly opposed to U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.

MOSHE GOLDSMITH: As the Palestinians try to announce statehood, we are making an announcement to the world that let's not forget the land of Israel is a Jewish homeland, and we're here to stay.

FRENKEL: There are some 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territories seized by Israeli forces in the 1967 War.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

FRENKEL: Soldiers flanked the settlers as they marched from Itamar to an army checkpoint at the entrance to Nablus.

GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

FRENKEL: A small group of young men from the settlement take over the traffic circle here. Israeli soldiers say they have stopped all Palestinian traffic for several miles back as the settlers sing and dance at the intersection. Israeli officers at the scene say they want to avoid a confrontation.

GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

FRENKEL: Twenty-one-year-old settler David Melchi urges his friends to camp out here till Friday, when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will formally present the bid for statehood recognition at the U.N. Eventually, the settlers leave but promise to return. The protest here passed peacefully. But just a few miles down the road, a group of settlers attempted to attack the Yousef family home, which lies on the edge of the Palestinian village of al-Sira.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

FRENKEL: I arrived at the scene just as the attackers were fleeing. Several of them used their T-shirts to cover their faces. One waved the orange flag of the settlement movement as he ran behind three Israeli army jeeps that stood between the settlers and the Palestinian village.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

FRENKEL: Within a few minutes, Israeli soldiers fired teargas to disperse a crowd of young Palestinian men responding to the attempted attack by the settlers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEARGAS HISSING)

FRENKEL: The hissing sound is the teargas canister. Tom Andrews, a pro-Palestinian activist here, says that the Yousef's home has been attacked by settlers several times in the last week, because it is one of the closest homes to the settlement.

TOM ANDREWS: To be honest, I think the settlers seem to feel that the U.N. vote is far more of a threat to them than the Palestinians feel that it's promising for themselves. So a lot of attacks at the moment are coming purely from settlements around Nablus.

FRENKEL: Palestinians here remain defiant. Today, families from this village joined tens of thousands of Palestinians in the streets of Nablus and other West Bank cities to celebrate the upcoming U.N. bid.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRENKEL: The streets of downtown Ramallah were teeming with men, women and children waving Palestinian flags. A 15-foot statue of a blue-and-white chair stood in the city's main square, a mockup of the seat the Palestinians hope to win at the U.N. Twenty-five-year-old Reem Majnus says she's been heartened by the support for the Palestinians' U.N. bid. But she says she is worried about efforts by the United States and some European nations to thwart the Palestinian demarche.

REEM MAJNUS: (Through Translator) It's ironic that the United States has supported the Arab Spring, but now it's standing against us as we try to have our own chance at a state.

FRENKEL: As she speaks, a group of young boys try to hurl miniature Palestinian flags onto the huge chair. Reem says even our youths know Palestine needs a chance to sit at the U.N. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.