Protect Palestinians now

The 3.5 million Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza urgently need international protection. Now facing humanitarian disaster, they need protection to ensure access to the basic requisites of human life. They will need it even more if they prepare – as President Bush has requested – for early elections across the territories.

"How can we hold elections under current conditions?" asks Khalid Amayreh, a journalist who lives in the West Bank village of Dura. When I visited the village in mid-June, all the roads into it – as into all the other Palestinian villages I saw – were blocked by six-foot dirt barricades that the Israeli military had heaped across them. Access was possible only for healthy individuals able to cross them.

In January 1996, Mr. Amayreh and all other residents of the West Bank and Gaza participated in a vote which met international criteria of "free and fair elections." (Voters gave Yasser Arafat a sweeping majority as head of the Palestinian Authority, and also elected a Palestinian Legislative Council.) Back then, Palestinians could travel relatively freely around the West Bank to meet with candidates and other voters. Now, Amayreh cannot even enter the nearby city of Hebron, which is surrounded by a ring of steel fencing. All West Bank cities except Jericho have now been thus encircled, with almost nobody allowed to go in or out. An area-wide economy that used to link those cities and East Jerusalem has been chopped into fragile, nonviable pieces. Families have been summarily split up. Thousands of Palestinians needing healthcare have been cut off from hospitals. Aid workers report that moving emergency food shipments to where they're needed is an expensive nightmare, subject to constant uncertainty regarding Israel's latest military regulations.

To the south, the once-bustling Gaza Strip was long ago fenced completely off from Israel (and Egypt). The Israeli government has now further cut it into three separate "sectors," with the Palestinians' ability to move between them tightly restricted. In both Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinian economy has been forced to a standstill. In late June, Gaza starting seeing food riots.

In these circumstances, President Bush's call for the Palestinians to engage in "honest enterprise" and "economic reform" seems Kafkaesque. Emily Mnisi, a South African visiting the West Bank for the first time, said that the Palestinians' situation there is far worse than that of South Africans placed in "Bantustans" during the apartheid years. "At least, inside the Bantustans you could travel around a bit," she said. These days, the Palestinian population centers seem more like the former Jewish ghettoes of Eastern Europe.

For now, most Israelis seem to support actions by their military that, in the name of trying to forestall suicide bombers, impose punishing collective restrictions on the whole of Palestinian society. There is, however, a clear cycle of violence in play. Even Israel's tough-guy defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, admits that the restrictions themselves, and the Palestinian desperation that results, seem only to spawn more suicide bombers.

Behind this cycle of violence, other forces in Israel's ruling coalition are taking advantage of Israel's current security crisis to push forward a long-term plan to tighten the grip of the West Bank's 200,000 Jewish settlers over nearly all the land and resources of the West Bank.

The West Bank is an area of steep, arid hills punctuated by occasional vineyards and olive groves. With the area's 2.2 million Palestinians confined to their home communities, the Jewish settlements have extended their control over all the lands reaching to the very edge of the Palestinian cities and villages. It is no longer the Jewish settlements that are isolated outposts amid a "sea" of Palestinians, but the Palestinians who are restrained in tiny areas while the settlers and the Israeli military dominate everything between.

Meanwhile, both sides to this conflict continue to live in a state of deep and seemingly inescapable fear. Israelis fear the uncertainty and terror of Palestinian suicide bombings. Many speak of a deep fear of an imminent "demographic" swamping by the Palestinians. For Palestinians, too, fears run deep. The main fear that all Palestinians (and many humane-minded Israelis) speak of is a repeat of 1948, the year when, during the fighting surrounding the birth of Israel, some 750,000 Palestinians from the land that became Israel left, or were forced from, their homes. Those refugees went into an exile from which Israel has never yet allowed them to return.

Nowadays, Israel's Hebrew-language media carry much open discussion about the advantages of what Israelis refer to as the "transfer" of large numbers of Palestinians from the occupied territories – or even of Palestinians from inside Israel, who have supposedly full Israeli citizenship. (Some Israelis admit shamefacedly that "transfer" is just another word for "ethnic cleansing.") At least one Israeli government minister, Effi Eitam, has expressed his open support of "transfer." Understandably, such talk terrifies Palestinians.

Mr. Bush did well to restate US support for a Palestinian state. But if he wants to use American power and influence to help Israelis and Palestinians avoid large-scale humanitarian disaster, and to escape from their current cycle of violence, he needs to speak out unequivocally against ethnic cleansing under any circumstances, and to reassure Palestinians that their state will have a viable territorial base, and won't be built in fragile ghettoes.

Even more urgently, he and other world leaders need to plan now for an international protection mechanism – preferably under UN auspices – to be deployed to the West Bank and Gaza as soon as possible.

• Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.

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