ISRAEL is quietly launching an effort that could extend its direct control over major portions of the occupied West Bank. Israeli sources say that land-use plans announced by the government last month for three Arab villages will ensure orderly growth and prevent urban sprawl.
But Palestinians and Western analysts describe the three plans, plus seven more which are said to be imminent, as an effort to further entrench Israel in the West Bank by restricting the growth of Arab towns and villages and possibly opening the door to expanded Jewish settlement.
Since the start of the Israeli occupation in 1967, between 40 and 60 percent of total West Bank land has been seized for settlements, roads, and military installations. If new town plans are imposed broadly, much land remaining in Arab hands could be placed off limits to construction.
One diplomatic source describes the plans as the beginning of a major effort by Israel to create ``facts on the ground'' in anticipation of eventual Middle East peace negotiations.
``It's not an accident that it's happening at this time,'' the source says. ``The Israelis can see the writing on the wall. Talks are imminent so they want to strengthen their hand as much as possible.''
Israel is under international pressure to relinquish occupied territories in return for a comprehensive Mideast peace.
Palestinians say the new plans are also calculated to stunt West Bank development and, by creating conditions of overcrowding and high unemployment, to force emigration from the West Bank.
``They want to make life as miserable as possible,'' says one leading Palestinian urban planning expert, who speaks of a ``slow motion'' Israeli policy of pressuring Palestinians to quit the West Bank. ``If the only choice is to live in a ghetto, the new generation will think of emigrating.''
``A denial of permits [to build houses outside the new limits] on the basis of this plan is a denial of rights,'' adds the planner.
The three villages - Nahhalin, near Bethlehem, and Shibtin and Hizma, near Ramallah - have one month to appeal the plans, potentially the first of dozens as Israel attempts to revive a 1982 master plan prepared for most of the villages in the West Bank.
Despite several requests, officials of the Israeli civil administration, the agency that administers the West Bank and which drafted the new town plans, declined to be interviewed on the subject.
The effects of Israel's new urban planning policy are vividly illustrated in the hillside town of Nahhalin, long a bastion of opposition to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the scene last April of one of the most violent episodes of the intifadah (uprising).
For decades this village of 3,000 has sprawled lazily along the picturesque slopes southwest of Bethlehem. Today four Jewish settlements, two just being built, look down from surrounding hilltops.
Under the plan announced last month, residents of Nahhalin will be forced to limit new construction to the 160 of the village's 1,500 acres where building is already concentrated.
Residents worry that 13 buildings left outside the new housing limit may be subject to demolition by Israeli authorities. During 1988, nearly 250 dwellings in the West Bank were demolished on the grounds that they had no building permits - more than the number leveled for security reasons related to the intifadah.
Beyond that is the fear that the new town plan may be just the latest of several steps that could strangle the village and cut it off from its agricultural livelihood.
Of the 1,500 acres that comprised the village limits of Nahhalin in 1967, the year the Israeli occupation began, 375 were confiscated in 1982 to make way for the construction of the Jewish settlement of Betar, clearly visible across a narrow valley.
Residents say if Betar eventually becomes the city of up to 50,000 now envisioned, more of Nahhalin's land will be confiscated, including the growing and grazing areas, now within the village limits, that generate most the village's income.
``Considering the space that will be needed for open spaces, public buildings, recreational facilities and the usual security belt around the built-up area - plus the agricultural and industrial facilities that would be needed, more land will have to be expropriated,'' the Palestinian urban planning expert says.
Another major threat is a planned road linking Betar with the planned Jewish kibbutz of Gavaot which Nahhalin residents say will strip away as many as 400 of the village's remaining acres, including its most fertile agricultural land. The villagers' appeal to block the project was rejected.
``It's like we have been cut with scissors,'' says a village elder who has lived in Nahhalin under British, Jordanian, and Israeli occupations.
Between 1982 and 1984 Israel drew master plans defining the limits of built-up areas in a large number of West Bank villages.
Following protests from Palestinians that the plans were based on faulty demographic and physical surveys, the master plans were shelved and villages and towns were allowed to submit their own plans - only one of which was accepted by the civil administration. Israel is now beginning to implement its 1982 master plans on a piecemeal basis, various Israeli and Palestinian sources speculate.
An Israeli source familiar with civil administration policy says villages like Nahhalin have small populations spread over a fairly extensive area.
Palestinians respond that in some Jewish settlements' smaller populations have been allowed to spread over much larger areas. Palestinians also object to what they and the West Bank Data Project, an Israeli research institute, say is the ultimate purpose of the master plans: to limit the built-up areas in Arab towns as a means of securing ``vast'' areas for Jewish settlement.
Nahhalin residents say the town was invited by the civil administration to participate in drafting a new town plan last year. Fearing their participation would produce few compromises by Israel while lending legitimacy to Israel's plans, the village declined.
Attorneys appealing the Nahhalin plan insist that they do not object to urban planning per se, but complain that the plan accommodates little or no population growth.
Based on current growth rates, within 20 years as many as 7,000 people may be forced to live in the same space where 3,000 Nahhalin residents now live.
``When you make a plan it has to be for the future, not for today,'' says Mohammad Musallam, a Nahhalin resident and one of three attorneys retained by the town to appeal the decision.
``Soon it will not be a village but a refugee camp,'' says another resident, referring to the high density that would result.
Whatever the motive behind the new plans, imposing them during the Palestinian uprising is an invitation to controversy, says the West Bank Data Project's Meron Benvenisti.
``Under other circumstances this would be a positive step that would make it possible to organize the villages and prevent sprawl. But because it's being done in this context it seems almost idiotic. It's as if the physical planners sit on Mars.''