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The practical case for a West Bank state

By John StebbingJohn Stebbing writes from 25 years of service as a British colonial officer in Nigeria, Swaziland, and Somaliland, and from 10 years of study of the Arab-Israeli conflict including many visits to the Gaza Strip and West Bank. / September 14, 1981



It is widely recognized that there can be no lasting peace in the Middle East until a basis has been found for a self-governing Palestinian Arab administration in a form acceptable to the Palestinians, the Arab states, and Israel.

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Fortunately, the possibilities of creating such a state are, in practical and economic terms, better than at any time during the last 30 years.

There are three reasons for this:

* The exceptional capabilities of the Palestinian people.

* The rapidly growing economic strength of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

* Improvements in agriculture in the Middle East, particularly in the extremely economical use of irrigation water. These have increased the absorptive capacity of the West Bank and for the first time made it feasible to use expensive desalted water for resettlement in the arid Gaza-Sinai region. These last developments could make possible the resettlement of large numbers of Palestinian refugees essential to the establishment of the new state.

One ironic effect of the refugee camps that have housed so many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza since 1949 has been that the population concentration has enabled the excellent UNRWA/UNESCO school system to reach at least 90 percent of refugee children since 1966-67. Of these 47 percent were girls. These figures considerably exceeded the averages in the Arab states as a whole.

There are three new universities in the West Bank. First-class teacher training and vocational training institutions have been established for young men and women in all the refugee areas. As a result many well-qualified Palestinians are in responsible professional posts throughout the Arab world.

If international help could be given to provide for the external security of the new state, the Palestinians could in a fairly short time assume responsibility for all the remaining functions of government.

The annual economic growth rate of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been very high, 18 percent throughout the first 10 years of the Israeli occupation: progress has been mainly in agriculture, the construction and transport industries, and a host of small businesses.

Developments in desalination have transformed the prospect of settlement based on irrigation using desalted water in arid coastal zones. Using proven methods, new areas could be developed for intensive resettlement in the Gaza-Sinai region.

If Egypt were prepared to cede approximately 54 square miles as a westward extension of the Gaza STrip, a new, more balanced, and less densely populated Gaza region could be developed.

Before 1948 the strip had a population of about 80,000; it is now approaching 500,000. If 100,000 people could be resettled, 32,000 on the land and the rest employed in associated industries and services, the congested camps could be thinned out to provide for open spaces, new industries, and urban development.

There are sound reasons for believing that Egypt would cede this small area as part of a peace settlement: there are similarities with the generous offer of Palestinian resettlement in the El Qantara region, made by Egypt in the early 1950s. An enlarged Gaza region would add considerable economic strength to the new state.

The development of the West Bank depends upon the government of Israel negotiating acceptable and secure borders, including a minimum of strategic settlements which might be under lease. A part of this negotiation could be the acceptance by Israel of a special highway linking the two Palestinian regions.

The West Bank must become the major reception area in the new state: as many as 1.2 million refugees may be eligible for resettlement. It is not known how many of these have already been acceptably resettled in host countries (considerable numbers have); how many could rejoin their families in Israel or the Gaza Strip; or how many have homes in the West Bank which are available for reoccupation.

The sharing of vital water resources would best be achieved by the Palestinians accepting a special form of associated statehood with the Hashemite Kingdom, probably the arrangement most acceptable to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians.

Associated with problems of resettlement are questions of compensation. There are extensive data on both dispossessed Arabs and dispossessed Jews in Arab countries. All Arabs and Jews who were dispossessed in the Arab-Israeli conflict should be compensated at present-day valuations.

Finally, an approach to the problem of Jerusalem might be in the direction of a shared but undivided city containing bothm the Israel and Palestine capitals. The latter, in the pre-1967 Jordanian sector of the city, would include the seat of the president of Palestine, the parliament, the Chief Kadi, and certain departments of state. A new interfaith council might be set up to administer the Old City.