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    Israel razed 62 Palestinian shops in Nazlat Issa village, setting new standards of destructiveness. And this is only the beginning, writes Jonathan Cook

    A tangled mess of crumpled aluminium sheets and bent steel girders that a fortnight ago were the shops of Nazlat Issa's market line the last stretch of the 100- metre stretch of road from the Israeli town of Baqa Al-Gharbiya to the military checkpoint guarding entry into the West Bank.

    Drivers, waiting to pass, sit idly in their cars next to the wreckage but already the strange sight is barely noticed. The demolished market is just another contour of the disfigured physical and human landscape Israel is fashioning out of the West Bank and Gaza.

    The demolition of Palestinian homes is now so commonplace that it barely raises eyebrows, let alone protest. But the razing of 62 shops, from grocery stores to a pharmacy and a furniture showroom, set new standards of destructiveness by the army. Even the Israeli media briefly took note.

    According to the shop owners, more than 300 soldiers swept into the Palestinian village on 21 January, most of them there to hold back the inhabitants as seven bulldozers went about their work. The first shop was destroyed shortly after 9am; by noon the job was finished.

    Dr Jamal Alfar points to two signs, one in Arabic and another in Hebrew, visible through the debris that are the only remaining evidence of the dentist's surgery he owned for five years.

    "The army came the day before to warn us to clear out our stuff," he said. "I had equipment that needed an engineer to remove but I couldn't get hold of him in time. I just had to watch it being demolished with the surgery. In three hours I lost more than $20,000 I had invested in that business. How can I find money like that? How do I start again?"

    Majad Baduwe, points to a particulary large mound of debris 30 metres from the army checkpoint. This was the showroom where he sold kitchen units made in his factory in Tulkarm. Since the Israeli army sealed off the West Bank, preventing most Palestinians from trading with Israel, Nazlat had been a commercial lifeline for his and other businesses.

    "My other shop in Tulkarm did a great trade before the Intifada but now no one can get in or out of the city. Since the Intifada, I had no choice but to switch all of my business to Nazlat. Times are hard but Israelis were still coming to the market and buying my kitchens."

    The accessibility of the market from Israel may, however, be precisely the reason for its downfall.

    Nazlat, a village of 2,500 Palestinians squeezed into a small strip of land between the Israeli Arab town of Baqa Al- Gharbiya and the Palestinian town of Baqa Al-Sharkiya, was one of the beneficiaries of the Oslo accords.

    Designated Area C -- under full Israeli control -- and with no history of violence, the village was treated by the authorities as though it was part of Israel rather than the West Bank. Even the army checkpoint was placed on the far side of the village, making Israeli shoppers feel as though they were still on their side of the Green Line, the pre-1967 border.

    But in the era of the Intifada, when there are increasingly loud calls from the Israeli public for physical separation from the Palestinians, Nazlat has become one of the obstacles to realising the new political vision. Such villages make demarcating a border between Israel and the West Bank impossible. Anyone on foot can reach either of the two Baqas through Nazlat's warren of alleys, making evasion of the checkpoint a simple matter.

    The destruction of the 62 shops is only the first stage in Israel's plans for the village. Most of Nazlat's 170 shops have had demolition orders hanging over them for the past few months, since the Civil Administration -- Israel's military government in the West Bank -- warned the businesses that their premises were built without planning permits.

    Not a few residents, including the mayor, Ziad Salem, believe that Israel is trying to make life so unbearable for the villagers that they are forced to move eastwards beyond the separation wall, which in this area is being built some distance away inside the West Bank.

    "Many of these shops have been here for 10 years," said Issa Alfar, 40, who owned a general provisions store. "Why did the army not tell us before if we didn't have the right licences? Why let us stay here a decade and then say out of the blue that we are illegal?"

    Talia Somech, a spokeswoman for the Civil Administration, said a series of court hearings and appeals had delayed the demolitions.

    The leading human rights organisation Btselem wrote to Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, last month challenging the reasoning behind the demolition orders.

    The group's director, Jessica Montell, points out that Palestinians throughout the occupied territories have been forced to build illegally because Israel refuses to grant them permits. The Civil Administration justifies its decisions by referring to planning rules from the British Mandate period, when most of the West Bank was agricultural land.

    Montell also observes that the same laws are not being enforced against the settlers. "In recent years, Israeli settlers in the West Bank have established more than 100 unauthorised outposts without first obtaining the necessary building permits," she writes. "In most of these cases, the Civil Administration did not dismantle the settlements or demolish the structures. Furthermore, in some cases, the authorities connected the outposts to the water and electricity networks and provided them with army protection."

    After the destruction of the 62 shops, other businesses in Nazlat are preparing for the army's return. Some 30 shop owners were warned by the local military commander that their premises were to be demolished last week. The army never came but the villagers know it is only a matter of time before they do.

    Basil Ahmed, who owns a grocery store on the other side of the road from the demolished market, was clearing his shelves by offering everything at knockdown prices. His neighbours were up on the building's corrugated roof taking down the shop signs.

    The shockwaves being sent through the local economy should not be underestimated. In a Palestinian economy suffocated by the military occupation, Nazlat's market offered one of the few reliable retail outlets for West Bank businesses. But it is not just the owners and their families suffering: their staff and suppliers -- the factories and farms that produce the goods -- are also being hit.

    Farouq Zaki, 45, is manager of the Mahdi double-glazing company, which stands behind the destroyed market. He employs more than 20 people who staff the huge warehouse and make the windows. All will be jobless within a few weeks. The factories and contractors that supply and transport the raw materials will also lose the company's vital business.

    "I have a wife and children, eight of them, to support, and so do many of the men here," he said. "Who's going to feed all those families? The Civil Administration?"

    Zaki says the building and machines to be destroyed are alone worth $1 million, and moving and finding new storage space for the 50 tons of aluminium frames and glass sheets will cost him at least as much again.

    "We have been fighting the demolition order through the courts. We even won an injunction from the High Court but the army commander just laughed when I told him about the injunction."

    Zaki says 60 per cent of his customers were Israeli and no one was afraid to come to the market. "Why destroy the market here when there are no attacks, when we have been living happily alongside our Israeli neighbours? If our livelihoods are taken away then there will be less security for Israel. What do starving people have to lose?"

    Zaki, like most other people here, believes the demolition was carried out by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to make himself look security-minded before the election last week. But other observers detect a more systematic plan.

    Jeff Halper, a professor of anthropology who runs the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, says the demolitions are becoming like "a plague" for the Palestinians. "Every day houses are demolished," he said. "But the scale of destruction is growing. Sixty houses are under threat north of Jenin, many more are facing demolition close to Beit Mirsom, 22 homes were destroyed earlier this week in and around Hebron."

    He believes the steep rise in the number and scope of demolitions reflects a new military strategy for dealing with the issue of separation and Nazlat Issa is among the victims of the changed thinking.

    "During Oslo the plan was to maintain Israel's settlement blocs in the West Bank and Gaza but make sure the Palestinians felt they had a stake in the prosperity so that they didn't disrupt the project. Israel had learnt from the mistakes of South Africa, which created Bantustans [mini-state homelands for the black population] but refused to allow them to develop their economies. Israel realised it needed to co-opt the Palestinians.

    "So a series of industrial parks were to be developed along the seam line [the Green Line] where Israelis could visit Palestinian businesses but which would deny the Palestinians any reason for entering Israel. Nazlat's market would have been absorbed into a commercial strip planned for just north of the village."

    But the logic has changed since the collapse of Oslo and the rise of the separation movement, says Halper. "Not only is the military trying to create a physical separation in the form of obstacles between the populations, including the wall, but it also wants to prevent all forms of interaction.

    "To do this the army is forcing the Palestinian population ever further east by confiscating agricultural land and destroying the infrastructure of the economy. Life is becoming untenable in both the towns and villages."

    Halper says the failure to understand the mechanisms of this process is afflicting the Palestinian leadership as much as outsider observers.

    "Not all transfer is about putting people on trucks and moving them to another area. What is called 'induced transfer', or displacement, involves altering the local landscape and infrastructure -- roads and built areas -- so that populations choose to go where you want them to.

    "This is happening to both the Palestinians and Israelis. Israel is building the Trans-Israel Highway [a huge motorway running much of the length of the Green Line] to provide a transport spine to make the West Bank much more accessible to Israelis in the conurbation areas around Tel Aviv. This is a way to encourage them to move eastwards towards and into the West Bank. But of course to succeed Israel must displace the Palestinian population that is living in these areas.

    "Israel can disguise its true intentions with the excuse that what is happening is being done for security reasons, or, as in the case of Nazlat, that the buildings are illegal.

    "Eventually it will be possible to link up and integrate the two Israeli populations -- those in the Israel and those in the settlement blocs."

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