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Israeli Racheli Pomerantz, 32, mother of three, walks with her children in the Gva'ot Settlement in the West Bank. / Debbie Hill for USA TODAY

GVA'OT, West Bank - Her infant daughter in her arms, Racheli Pomerantz shooed away a TV cameraman as she walked down the hill in this tiny Jewish settlement to pick up her two older children from preschool.

This community of 17 Israeli families, apartments for disabled adults, a school for disabled children, several horses and a petting zoo is accustomed to solitude. So Pomerantz, who rents a small prefab home here, was surprised by the sudden international attention on the settlement since Aug. 30, when the Israeli government announced it would designate a swath of land next to Gva'ot as state-owned property.

The Palestinian Authority and left-leaning Israeli groups such as Peace Now say the 988 acres of pine and olive trees and ancient terraces reminiscent of the Bible belong to Palestinian municipalities. They're convinced the Israeli government will use the land to build a large Jewish settlement.

The Civil Administration run by the Israeli army said an investigation found no owners of the land, which settlement advocates, such as Israel's hawkish minister of the economy, Naftali Bennett, claim is part of the large Gush Etzion settlement bloc. Over the years, polls have shown a majority of Israelis believe the bloc should remain in Israeli hands following a peace deal with the Palestinians.

The Gush Etzion bloc's core communities were founded before Israel's establishment in 1948 on land purchased by Jews in the 1920s and 1930s. Arab soldiers destroyed the communities when they fought against Israel's founding during the 1948 war.

Even so, the U.S. State Department called the land expropriation "counterproductive" to Israel's "stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians," and urged the Israeli government "to reverse this decision." The European Union also has condemned the decision.

To Pomerantz, the international outcry doesn't take into account Jews' religious and historical ties to the West Bank. Gva'ot appears in the Old Testament, and "the biblical land of Israel is inseparable from the state of Israel," she said.

On a practical level, Pomerantz added, "there is an acute shortage of housing, so construction is vital."

Dani Dayan, chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council of Jewish settlements, said the international community is overreacting to the land expropriation. "It doesn't mean a single housing unit has been approved," he said. "That the American administration and the EU are so focused on us when we see the unrest in Ukraine and Syria shows a lack of proportionality."

Hagit Ofran, who heads Peace Now's Settlement Watch program, says the international scrutiny is warranted. She called the land reclassification "a slap in the face" to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who governs the West Bank and stayed out of the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. The U.S. considers Abbas a political moderate, and brands Hamas, which governs Gaza, a terrorist group.

When Abbas calls for renewed peace negotiations with Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's answer is to expand settlements, Ofran said. "It weakens (Abbas) and the support of the Palestinian people for peace."

Nabil Abu Rudaineh, an Abbas spokesman, said the land expropriation "will only inflame the situation after the war in Gaza."

Some Israelis say the land expropriation was intended to warn Palestinians that violence against Jews - such as the June murders of three Israeli teens in the West Bank - will only strengthen Israel's resolve to settle the land.

"This was an appropriate response to murder," Finance Minister Bennett said a day after the land expropriation. "What we did yesterday was a display of Zionism. Building is our answer to murder."

Gerald Steinberg, a Bar-Ilan University professor, said Netanyahu may be trying to establish Israel's final borders unilaterally, and the expropriation is part of that strategy. "He can't say this publicly because Israel's relations with the U.S. are based on the premise of deciding borders through negotiations," Steinberg said.

While the expropriation "was couched in terms of a Zionist response to the teens' murders," Steinberg said, "the plans for annexing the land go back many years. I don't believe they were meant to embarrass Abbas."

Munir Othman, a Palestinian shopping in a grocery in the nearby town of Bethlehem, attacked Israel's move as a land grab. "Netanyahu isn't looking for peace," he said. "The fact is, since 1948, when Israel was established, the Zionist movement has been swallowing Palestinian land, day by day."

Nidal Hashlamun, owner of a Bethlehem barbershop, said while trimming a customer's hair that all Israeli settlements must be uprooted: "It's Palestinian land and the Israelis must leave it."



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Israel's claim of West Bank land sparks controversy

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