Mohammed Masri’s neighbors say they do not know whether he sold Palestinian land to Jews, but they are certain of one thing: If he did, he should be executed.
Masri--an insurance salesman, according to his wife--is one of at least a dozen Palestinians arrested in the last three weeks on suspicion of selling Arab land to Israelis. Most will stand trial soon, and if convicted they will face the death penalty, Palestinian Justice Minister Freih abu Medeen says.
To Israelis and Americans, this may well seem an abhorrent example of anti-Semitism on the part of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has threatened to cut U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority over the issue.
But to Palestinians, it is a question of sovereignty. Selling land to Israelis, they say, is selling off the Palestinian homeland to the enemy. It is a crime of treason.
On this point, Palestinian leaders and their people appear to be in complete agreement.
“If it is proven that any individual has sold land to the Israelis, he deserves to be executed,” said Sheik Issa abu Zahrah, 44, owner of a construction supply shop. “Even if he is my own father.”
Salah Tamari, head of the Palestinian Legislative Council’s Land and Settlement Committee, belongs to an apparent minority of Palestinians who oppose the death penalty. But he heartily defends the decision to enforce the land-sale law, dug out of Jordanian codes still in force in the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967.
“In every nation, treason is a major crime demanding the ultimate punishment,” Tamari said. “Our war with the Israelis now is over land. Their bulldozers are working. They are establishing new settlements.”
Land has always been at the heart of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, who want an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as the capital. Shortly after the 1967 Mideast War, Israel annexed almost 18,000 acres of East Jerusalem and open areas of the West Bank to West Jerusalem. They declared the “reunited” city Israel’s capital. Israelis went on to build 140 Jewish settlements on this land, plus roads and infrastructure on an additional 84,000 acres of the West Bank.
Much of that land was confiscated, but some was bought decades ago from Arabs, including a large swath of the hill in southeastern Jerusalem that Israelis call Har Homa and Palestinians call Jabal Abu Ghneim. Israel’s decision to build a 6,500-unit Jewish neighborhood in that traditionally Arab area has led to a breakdown in peace negotiations and to the announcement in early May that those convicted of selling Arab land to Jews will face the death penalty.
There are five Jewish settlements near this West Bank village, on land that Palestinians say once was theirs. This Muslim farming town south of Hebron straddles a one-lane road that winds through the crowded Al Fawar refugee camp and on past rows of fruit-laden cactus, golden wheat fields and silver-green olive groves.
At sunset, the men of Yatta crouch by the side of the mosque in traditional robes or sit in plastic chairs outside shops to exchange the news of the day. This is how word spread nearly three weeks ago that Masri and his friend Miteb Mahmoud Dahdour had been arrested by the Palestinian Preventive Security.
“Dahdour is a respected person, a friend, and when we heard he had been taken on the basis of land sales, we didn’t believe it,” grocer Ishak Behais later recalled. “I don’t believe anyone can prove he sold land to Jews. But if he is found guilty and is executed, we will be happy.”
Masri is not as popular as Dahdour, and few rushed to his defense the way his wife, Hana, did.
“They say he is accused of selling land. He never sold land. He was a bus driver, and he has been selling insurance in Hebron for about a year,” Hana Masri said, pointing to a plastic ashtray advertising the insurance company. “I don’t know why this is happening.”
As Masri’s wife spoke, 16 days had passed since he was summoned to the office of the Preventive Security force and walked out the door. She said she had neither seen him since then nor been officially notified of his arrest. All she knew of the allegations against him came from a cousin who works in the General Intelligence Service and from town gossips.
The mother of five had no idea where her husband was being held, and she seemed unaware of a report that he was taken to a hospital in the West Bank city of Hebron for a night. Human rights activists suspect he was treated for injuries related to torture.
Medeen said at a news conference last week that 12 Palestinians had been arrested on suspicion of selling land to Jews and at least seven of them would be put on trial under the law that he said Jordanians used to sentence about 150 land sellers and execute 10 of them.
But Medeen did not identify the detainees or detail the charges against them. Human rights advocates say none were presented before a court within 48 hours of their arrest or formally charged, as required by Jordanian law.
“We have to know the charges,” said Hana Masri, who has not left her grapevine-covered house since her husband’s arrest. “We can’t live with this uncertainty.”
At Preventive Security, officers confirmed that Masri was detained on suspicion of illegal land sales and was under investigation. They would not say where he was being held or speak further about his case.
But the officers and an imam, or religious leader, of a nearby mosque were more than happy to speak about the land issue, in general terms, over an afternoon glass of sweet mint tea. Suspects are entitled to a legal arrest, the imam said. They must be treated justly and receive a fair trial. Offenders must be punished. “This is not revenge; it is law,” he said.
“If we lose the land, we will end up as slaves to Israel,” one security agent said. “They are killing us slowly by taking our land.”
Medeen, meantime, denied official complicity in the death of Farid Bashiti, a land dealer from Jerusalem whose bludgeoned body was discovered in Ramallah a few days after the announcement that the death penalty would be imposed on those convicted of selling Arab land to Jews.
But Medeen, like most Palestinians, failed to strongly condemn Bashiti’s execution. In the dusty streets of Yatta, no one was mentioning the case denounced around the world.
Instead, they fingered their prayer beads and focused on the case closer to home. Masri was not as pious as other men, they murmured. He visited the mosque maybe once every six months and didn’t have the best reputation, they said.
No, they had not heard rumors that Masri was dealing in land before his arrest, said a farmer with a white beard and amber beads. No one in town seemed to know where the land was that Masri was supposed to have sold, he said. “But the government doesn’t take someone without a reason,” he concluded.
Muhammed El-Hasan of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.