Israel seems to be slowly annexing the West Bank

While driving from Jerusalem past nearby Bethlehem, it is hard to tell where Israel ends and the occupied Palestinian West Bank begins. The massive high-rise Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, built on land once part of the Bethlehem district, dominates the skyline over Bethlehem area villages while seven Israeli settlements can be seen on or near the main road in a 15-minute drive past Bethlehem.

Israel and Egypt have scheduled renewed talks about autonomy for the occupied Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Palestinians, along with some Israelis and Western diplomats familiar with the area, contend that these territories have already been virtually annexed.

While US diplomats have pondered over the past two years how to reconcile totally opposite Israeli and Egyptian concepts of Palestinian autonomy, Israel has been moving with determination on the ground to foreclose the option of returning all -- or even part -- of the occupied teritories to Arab sovereignty.

"In practical terms, the effective annexation of the West Bank has already been accomplished," says Meron Benvenisti, a former Israeli deputy mayor of Jerusalem, who has prepared a study of Israel's linkups with the West Bank. "Economically, socially, and legally the West Bank has been integrated into the Israeli system."

The Egypt-Israel peace treaty calls for "full autonomy" -- or self-rule -- on the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza as a prelude to final resolution of their status after a five-year transition period. Egypt views autonomy as a prelude to total Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian self-determination. Israel asserts that autonomy means "neither sovereignty nor self-determination" and applies only to area residents, not to the territory on which they live. Israel says it will press to exercise its "right" to sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza after the transition period.

The past 14 years of occupation have changed the physical and economic face of the West Bank. Mr. Benvenisti argues that economic integration of Israel and the territories "has been complete for years. Water, electricity (for the most part), communications, the road system, the tourist industry, fiscal and monetary systems -- all are operating as one organic unit with Israel."

The bulk of West Bank and Gaza wage earners commute to Israel -- mostly as construction and industrial workers. The territories -- largely cut off by Israeli customs and tax barriers from outside imports -- provide a major market for Israeli goods.

What had been referred to as "creeping annexation" began to gallop in the months preceeding the June 1981 Israeli elections, according to Danny Rubinstein , long-time Israeli West Bank correspondant for Davar (The Word), the pro-Labor Party daily newspaper, who has published conclusions similar to Mr. Benvenisti's.

The most dramatic physical changes on the West Bank revolve around settlements. Israeli analysts and Western diplomats stress that the primary significance of the settlements does not lie in their numbers, estimated at about 92 sites on the West Bank -- including some still unpopulated -- which appear to about complete the Israelis' numerical plan.

The settlements' chief importance, they say, lies in Israeli plans to expand them, in the pattern of their geographic placement, and in the infrastructure built around them.

Israeli military officials state that only about 2 percent of West Bank land has been taken for settlements. However, Messrs. Benvenisti and Rubinstein say that Israel asserts rights to about 1.5 million dunams (1 dunam equals one-quarter of an acre), 27 percent of the total West Bank area of 5.5 million dunams -- for potential settlement, military, or other use. This does not include the area of the former Jordanian sector of Jerusalem and surrounding land, which was formally annexed by Israel in 1967.

Of this total, 750,000 dunams are state lands and 430,000 dunams absentee property that the Israeli government asserts claim to because its registered owners live in enemy Arab countries or elsewhere. The remainder includes land registered as Jewish-owned before 1948; land purchased by Israel since 1967 (much of it secretly through middlemen); and land expropriated, seized, or closed off by Israel due to proximity to certain roads, settlements or military bases.

Israel's definition of state land differs significantly from that of the West Bank's previous rulers: Jordan, Britain, and turkey recognized village claims to state land they had farmed for many years. Israel claims the right to seize state land for settlements -- whether it is rocky or cultivated -- unless villagers can produce formal title deeds. Such seizures were stepped up before the June 1981 Israeli elections.

The Likud government has spelled out that settlements have been located so as to split the West Bank into segments, thus making impossible the establishment of a Palestinian state, which Israel views as a prime security threat.

"Being cut off by Jewish settlements, it will be difficult for the minority [ Arab] population to unite and create territorial and political continuity," wrote Mativyahu Drobles, head of the Jewish agency's settlement division.

Three north-south belts of settlements -- grouped in blocs -- have been established on the kidney-shaped West Bank: one in the west along inside the 1967 borders, giving Israel more geographical depth; one along the spine of the West Bank's central ridge overlooking its major cities; and one belt in the east along the Jordan valley.

Several blocs of West Bank settlements have been located in the metropolitan area of Jerusalem and just across the 1967 borders from Israeli metropolitan areas like Hadera and Kfar Saba. These blocs, Benvenisti says, "were planned as extensions of the metropolitan areas they adjoin.

"They have opened large-scale speculation and development possibilities, helped along by government subsidies, loans, and major infrastructure works. These areas will soon form integral parts of the adjoining [Israeli] urban conglomerates." West Bankers fear the blocs around Jerusalem will expand to absorb the nearby Arab towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem into a large complex of Israeli suburbs.

According to a recent article in the Israeli independent daily Ha'aretz (The Land), Israel will attempt to obliterate the 1967 border completely in the Hadera area. Ha'aretz says Israeli settlements will be built inside both Israel and the West Bank, squeezing the border in between like a "sandwich."

Some Israeli analysts believe that hurriedly established pre-election settlements will wither for lack of settlers willing to risk living among hostile Arabs. At present there are only 20,000 settlers -- not including Jerusalem suburbs -- amid 700,000 Arabs, and many sites are only shells.

However, Israeli settlement officials say the latest sites are aimed not at ideologues backing greater Israel, but at young couples seeking cheap flats.

West Bankers fear that Israeli development will come at the expense of their own municipal expansion. The Jewish settler blocs have their own regional councils, with planning and taxing power, and their own court system, which operates according to Israeli law.

Moreover, a recent Israeli military order transfers authority to grant building permits from Arab municipalities to the Israeli military administration over an area of 500,000 dunams -- 11 percent of the total West Bank area, located north and south of Jerusalem. West Bankers fear their towns' growth will be strangled in favor of Israeli settlement expansion. The Israeli Ministry of the Interior says the move was intended to prevent "uncontrolled building" in the area.

In addition to West Bank land taken for settlements, Mr. Rubinstein reports that large tracts were expropriated in 1980 for Army bases, depots, and training grounds relocated from Sinai, from which Israel will withdraw totally by April 1982. This new military infrastructure in the West Bank, says Benvenisti, "has no possible substitute in pre-1967 Israel and therefore" cannot be given up.

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