The Jewish colony of Eli in the foreground, near Qariout. Palestinian leaders have refused to resume talks until all colony-building activity stops. Image Credit: AP

Qariout, West Bank: The head of the Palestinian village of Qariout can't scan the horizon without being reminded of everything his people have lost.

From the roof of the village council building, Abdul Nasser Bedawi can see six of the nine Israeli colonies and outposts that have sprung up on the surrounding hills in the last three decades, fencing in the village and keeping it from two-thirds of its land.

From a hilltop in one of those colonies, Shiloh, Batya Medad sees a different story in the colonists' red-roofed houses: She calls it the return of the Jewish people to land God promised them in the Old Testament.

Bedawi and Medad speak different languages and have never met, although their homes lie less than two kilometres apart. Between them lies the harsh conflict over Israel's West Bank colonists.

The colonies have emerged as the chief roadblock in Middle East peace efforts. The Palestinians consider them a threat to the state they hope for in the West Bank, Gaza and occupied east Jerusalem. Their leaders have refused to resume talks until all colony-building activity stops.

Halt

After rebuffing American and Palestinian calls for a freeze in colonies, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in late November a 10-month halt to new construction in West Bank colonies like Shiloh as a step toward restarting talks.

Colonists have protested the move, saying it restricts life in their communities, while Palestinians have rejected it because it doesn't apply to occupied east Jerusalem nor to some 3,000 homes already under construction elsewhere.

Colonies, now numbering about 120 in the West Bank, have been argued over by lawyers and negotiators ever since they started going up after Israel captured the territories in the 1967 war. Today, about a half million Israelis live in the West Bank and in the Arab sector of Jerusalem, which Israel annexed — a move the world has never recognised.

Qariout, a rocky village of 2,600 people about 30 kilometres north of occupied Jerusalem, illustrates why Palestinians are so desperate to halt the spread of colonies.

Beyond the political issue of their effect on borders for any future state, they constrict life in hundreds of West Bank villages by gobbling up farmland, restricting movement and exposing villagers to clashes with colonists, Palestinians say.

Shiloh was the first colony in Qariout, founded in 1979. Since then two other colonies have sprung up nearby, along with six smaller wildcat outposts, which are illegal under Israeli law but get electricity, water and protection from the government.

Together, they surround the village on three sides and deny it access to about two-thirds of its land, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli rights groups that tracks colonies.

Dror Etkes, of Yesh Din, said the Israeli government has officially allocated 28 per cent of the village's original 840 hectares to nearby colonies.

Another 35 to 40 per cent of the village's land has been taken unofficially by colonists or the Israeli army, he said. Sometimes, colonists fence off or cultivate plots, chasing off Palestinians who try to reach them, he said.

Other times, Israeli authorities seize plots to build army posts or roads between colonies. Once a road is built, villagers can rarely reach the land beyond it, Etkes said.

Detour

At the same time, Israel refuses to let the village pave the two-kilometre-long road to the highway and regularly bulldozes it shut, calling it "illegal" and forcing villagers to make a 22-kilometre detour.

Mohammad Muqbil, a farmer born in Qariout in 1939, said he has lost two of his three plots to colonies. The army confiscated one in 1982 and colonists now grow grapes on it. Colonists chased him from another in 2003, then planted olive trees, he said.

His remaining plot, near the Shvut Rachel colony, has been a battleground since 2000. Colonists have plowed up his wheat, harvested his olives, prevented him from working and even beat him up, he said. In 2007, a colonist uprooted his 300 trees with a bulldozer, he said.

His father farmed the plots before Muqbil was born, and Muqbil said he has documents from Israel and Jordan, ruler of the West Bank until 1967, proving his ownership.

He also keeps an inch-thick stack of Israeli police reports he filed after each incident — all to no avail, he said. Yesh Din has documented 14 incidents near Qariout of criminal trespassing and attacks on Palestinians by colonists in the last two years.

But complaints rarely bear fruit.