The panicked Palestinian farmers hauled dozens of olive seedlings to the rocky patches in a futile attempt to keep the terrain out of the hands of the Israeli government, which had recently ordered them to turn over 100 acres.
Faisal Husseini, who headed the Palestinian peace talks team in Madrid six weeks ago, made an appearance, telling the farmers that the Israeli seizure was a provocation but that the peace negotiations will go on and will succeed. Soldiers watched impassively nearby.
The sprigs were planted. Husseini and a trail of reporters left. Then the action began. The soldiers moved in, pulled up the trees and made 40 lingering bystanders strip to the waist in the wintry wind.
"After Madrid, we were happy that talks had begun and maybe there would be peace," said Taiser Saif, a landowner in Beit Iksa. He attended Monday's tree planting and shivered in the cold after he was forced to strip to the waist during the display of Israeli military authority. "I don't believe it now. The time is just used to make us lose our land."
In Washington, amid much wrangling, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators gathered Tuesday for the second round of peace talks. A call for a halt to land confiscations and expansion of settlements was much in the thoughts of the Palestinians. The Israelis are willing to talk about most anything except land.
Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has been cautioning that the peace process will take time. He has advised the Palestinians to douse their optimism. Meantime, his government has not hesitated to keep up the pace of settlement on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
And on these scrubby hills, time seems to be on the side of the settlement campaign.
In November, after the Madrid conference broke up, residents of Beit Iksa received notice that rocky land west of the village was out of bounds for farming because it was part of the property to be taken over in the state land program. State land is a designation used by the government to confiscate land for settlements. In the last 20 years, about half of the land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been put in government hands.
Palestinians operate under the belief that, if they plant land with trees, their holdings will be spared. But generally, land must be cultivated for a decade to be placed beyond the government's grasp.
"There is a race on between the Palestinians, who are planting trees like never before, and the government, which is planting settlements like never before," said an architect employed by the Housing Ministry to plan new settlements. The ministry is headed by Ariel Sharon, the chief promoter of the colonization program.
Over the years, Beit Iksa has lost chunks of its 4,000 acres to a settlement adjacent to Jerusalem. Villagers are forbidden to build outside a semi-urban core, and it is impossible for Beit Iksa to expand. "We will soon be just a dot surrounded by barbed wire," said Saif.
Plia Albeck, a Justice Ministry legal adviser, said the disputed land was taken over in 1989. "There have been several cases of trespassing," she said. "We have just recently (marked off) the land and let the villagers know."
The U.S. State Department, host for this week's talks, has repeatedly opposed the expansion of settlements, and new Israeli requests for foreign aid may hinge on Israel's willingness to curtail development. But for now, new roads are being opened, homes built and financial incentives given to Israelis who move into the communities.
Last week, Defense Minister Moshe Arens approved a military settlement near Nablus as the first step toward creating a civilian community. Settlers protesting the recent shooting death of a woman riding a bus near the spot had set up a memorial vigil, which soon became the seed for the new site.
The protesters view the settlements as a way to block talk of land compromise in the Middle East peace negotiations. "We want to stop the government from selling us out," said Toba Frankel, a settler from nearby Beit El.
In Jerusalem, an urban settlement program has accelerated in Arab neighborhoods. Shamir's Cabinet overturned a recommendation from the attorney general to evict armed settlers, who, late one night six weeks ago, raided the Silwan district and tried to take over eight houses. They occupied two, one abandoned and the other whose tenant was away overnight. Residents of other homes were permitted to stay on.
"I am living in a grocery store," said Jamil Abassi, who was at a wedding the night his house was seized. He said he had rented the place from his uncle, who fled to Jordan in 1967.
The police objected to the takeover on the grounds that it had raised tensions in the neighborhood although officers did nothing to stop the settlers.
In response, Shamir said anyone who had properly obtained a house anywhere in Jerusalem could move in. The takeovers are the first stage in a plan to create an Israeli community within Silwan; 200 houses are to be built in the poor Arab neighborhood, which sits just outside Jerusalem's Old City, newspapers said.
The Palestinians want to recover neighborhoods of East Jerusalem won by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed shortly after. About 140,000 Palestinians live in Jerusalem within the total population of nearly half a million. In the West Bank and Gaza, 110,000 Israelis have settled among 1.7 million Palestinians.
Husseini spoke in irritation about the continued turbulence. He has predicted that Palestinians will quickly grow disillusioned if talks produce nothing but settlement expansion. "They want to force us to hand the flag to people who do not believe in peace," he advised.