The struggle for the West Bank; Israel cements its hold on the West Bank
Barqan, Israeli-occupied West Bank
Under the Camp David accords, the rest of Sinai is due to be returned to Egypt this April. The main focus of Camp David -- and of the world -- then switches to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.Skip to next paragraph
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In a series of articles starting today, the Monitor examines Israeli rule in the West Bank, details the steady increase in Jewish settlements there, and assesses the impact of all this on the Arabs and Israelis who live in the disputed territory.
It was an unlikely setting for a historic event.
Rain pelted a drab green Army tent. Underneath, Israeli political figures munched hors d'oeuvres. Mud flecked the suede boots of women dignitaries.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a bulky raincoat dwarfing his small frame, clasped a pair of scissors of the type sold in any Israeli hardware store, and strode to the center of an adjacent road. With one neat snip, he cut a ribbon dyed in blue and white, Israel's national colors:
The Trans-Samaria highway was officially open.
It is not much as highways go. It has only two lanes, no motels, no truck stops. It runs for barely 35 miles. A few of those miles are yet to be paved.
But the new asphalt artery from Israel through the upper part of the West Bank -- like Barqan and other Jewish settlements along the way -- serves concrete notice of the Begin government's ultimate aim in the disputed territory: to annex it in everything but name.
''You've been here in the past few years and have seen,'' an official who knows Mr. Begin well remarked evenly to this reporter. ''Gradually we have been managing to erase the physical distinction between the coastal area (of Israel) and Judaea and Samaria,'' as Israel calls the West Bank area captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
''We haven't completely succeeded yet. But give us three or four or five years, and you'll drive out there and you won't be able to findm the West Bank.'' There will, he said, be only one territory -- all of it the state of Israel.
The closer that goal gets, the more remote seem the chances of any workable compromise in the long-deadlocked talks among Israeli, Egyptian, and US negotiators on ''full autonomy'' for the West Bank's roughly 800,000 Palestinian Arabs.
Another, already unlikely, prospect - expansion of the negotiating process to include further Arab parties - will become all but impossible.
The autonomy scheme, provided for in the US-sponsored Camp David accords of 1978, was to be a transitional one, pending later talks on the ''final status'' of the territory.
The Egyptians ultimately want self-determination, not merely autonomy, for the Palestinians. Other Arabs, even the most moderate, insist explicitly on a full-fledged Palestinian state. The Americans, for their part, hold at least that the issue should be left genuinely open.
The Israelis have no such intention, and don't hide it.
''For us or the Egyptians or anyone else to believe otherwise is just plain grasping at straws,'' laments one US diplomat privately.
The Israelis' hope is that their steady integration of the West Bank into ''the rest of our country'' will prod the Palestinians to accept autonomy on Israel's own strictly limited terms. One Israeli official puts it privately: ''The Palestinians should begin to realize, in effect, they have very few shopping days left till Christmas.''
Over the past 18 months, the Israelis have been driving home this point not only with words, but also, increasingly, with action:
* The number of Jewish settlements on the West Bank -- standing at 65 when the Monitor printed a settlement-by-settlement survey in early 1980 -- has jumped to 88, as detailed in the explanatory stories and map accompanying this article. (In the spring of 1980, Mr. Begin said in an interview with this and a group of other American journalists that only 10 more settlements were planned. ''You can publish it, . . . and I think the Americans in Congress and in the [ Carter] administration will be very glad to hear. . . . The problem is finished.'')