IN the two months since Secretary of State James Baker's March 11 announcement that United States aid would not be tied to Israel's commitment to peace, Israel has confiscated more Palestinian land than it did in the previous two years, according to the Israeli Alternative Information Center. More than 20,000 acres were taken from their owners between the secretary's first and second visits to the region after the Gulf war. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has repeatedly vowed not to relinquish an inch of t
he occupied territories in peace talks.
In late February Washington released $400 million in loan guarantees to Israel, after getting "assurances" that they would not be used for housing in the territories. Since then, Israel has embarked on what its press calls an "unprecedented construction frenzy" in the West Bank and Gaza. Its existing 140 settlements are being rapidly expanded, and five new settlements have been inaugurated since Baker began his visits to the region.
At the beginning of May the Israeli Ministry of Housing announced plans to build 24,000 new units in the West Bank and Gaza and to ring Jerusalem with a new settlement belt that will house 1 million people. The Israeli government has already stated that it will request further housing loan guarantees from the US in September. It seems confident that the US will continue to subsidize its activities, no matter how at odds they are with stated US policy and with UN Security Council resolutions condemning s e
ttlements in the territories.
WHILE Israeli bulldozers busily expand the "for settlers only" road systems that encircle their villages in the occupied territories, Palestinians are immobilized by a new permit system in the West Bank and Gaza. They must apply for a permit to go to Jerusalem, which is the heart of the economic, cultural, and religious life of the territories, the site of the only modern Palestinian hospital, and the center through which pass all north-south roads in the West Bank.
To get that permit, which is valid for only a limited time, Palestinians must wait in line for six different stamps - which must be applied for consecutively - from six different government agencies. During a visit to the territories in late April, I met a Bethlehem resident who spent two weeks waiting for permission to take a relative a few miles down the road to a Jerusalem hospital. I also met students whose Jerusalem schools were closed because their teachers were barred from entering the city, and m
erchants who could no longer move their goods to market.
Coupled with this new permit system is a new pass system that has reduced by more than half the number of Palestinians working across the "green line" in Israel. This has led to unemployment rates of at least 50 percent across the territories and 90 percent in some villages and refugee camps.
Israeli employers now hire "batches" of workers and transport them to work. Near the main checkpoint in the Gaza Strip there is a new prison-like pen, surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. Around 4:00 a.m., Gaza workers leave their own cars along the road, enter the pen to be searched at gunpoint, and then are herded into buses for work in Israel. They are searched again on their return 12 hours later.
As the Israeli government tightens its stranglehold over the territory and economy of the West Bank and Gaza, it will take more than simple persuasion to bring Prime Minister Shamir into serious negotiations with the Palestinians. The US gives Israel more than $10 million per day. The US should use aid as leverage over Israel, as it did in 1953 when it withheld some assistance until Israel abandoned a water diversion project that violated United Nations requirements.
The alternative is that Washington acquiesce in the transformation of the West Bank and Gaza into colonies of human misery, paid for by the US taxpayer.