Engulfed West Bank

Some Palestinians wonder how much land will be left

AS the plane descended, I became apprehensive. It wasn't quite the same feeling I had 2 1/2 years ago, when I arrived with a small delegation of Jewish Americans on a fact-finding trip to the West Bank and Gaza. Returning on my own two more times, I had gained the comfort derived from familiarity. But this was now the post-Gulf-war era, the beginning of the "new world order," and I knew that no matter how much I read, I could not comprehend fully the reality on the ground in the occupied territories. I wondered about the reports of hunger, "the death of the intifada," and the impact of the Soviet immigration on Palestinians. I thought I was braced for the worst. I soon realized, however, that I was not prepared for the way the landscape had been so dramatically transformed by the rapid expansion of Israeli settlements. It was an unavoidable sight, regardless of which direction you headed out of Jerusalem. The road to Jericho bisects Palestinian lands, leaving an asphalt gash in the white terrain, as it winds its way to the Jordan River. It's not long before the scarred hilltops and the mass of large buildings come into view: Ma'aleh Adumim. This Israeli settlement of 15,000 represents the second stage of the "Judaization" of the West Bank. Having recently become the first to be granted city status, it is proof, the Israeli government proclaims, that settlers have "put their roots down." The main artery linking the northern West Bank with Jerusalem snakes through several neighborhoods as it climbs the hill and heads for Ramallah. This old route is being supplanted by a straight six-lane highway which will make access to the constantly expanding settlements in East Jerusalem easier. I stood at the site where the Mandelbaum Gate once separated East from West Jerusalem and looked up the new highway toward the high rises stretching in the distance. All signs of Palestinian life and culture had been practically obliterated. This road and the settlements to which it leads are not remarkable; they are just part of the Israeli infrastructure - just one more example of the glory of "unified" Jerusalem. This euphemism, like the others adopted by the Israeli government, represents the thinly disguised but systematic takeover of land and buildings in Jerusalem. An increasing number of Palestinians are being evicted from their homes in the Old City, as the buildings in which they live are confiscated from their absentee owners, some of whom live in the US. Elsewhere, new municipal buildings are popping up in the empty spaces left by demolished buildings. And on the shutters of businesses, on buildings, and even on trees, Israeli soldiers have been painting the six-pointed Star of David. Besides the clusters of recently built buildings dotting the landscape on the way from Jerusalemn to Ramallah, there are frequent signs in Hebrew pointing up newly built roads to yet other Jewish settlements. Driving on these specially constructed roads that bypass Palestinian towns and villages, Israelis can avoid being reminded of their neighbors on whose lands they now live. For the Palestinians, however, the settlements, built high atop the surrounding hills, are always in their line of vision, a con stant reminder of the seizure of their land. Returning after more than one year to a village in the Ramallah area where I have spent considerable time, I was stunned by the changes I saw. With a new settlement installed on the hilltop in the distance, I realized that there was not a single direction in which I could turn without seeing an Israeli settlement. The road that was being bulldozed to reach this latest one ran through an ancient olive grove, resulting in the confiscation of the land and the uprooting of more than 100 trees. Looking out over the bald spot where the grove had once stood, I remembered the old farmer who I had met more than a year ago. Fighting back tears, he told me how he had gone to his land one day to find a fence running through the middle of it. Pulling out maps and old tax receipts and other records, he vowed he would fight back, even though he knew his odds of winning were slim. I wondered if it was his trees that had been uprooted. Even before the escalation in land confiscations this year, and even before the massive influx of Soviet emigres, it was estimated that more than 60 percent of West Bank lands were already in Israeli hands. And the numbers of settlers has increased dramatically, their figures estimated to be 100,000, at least. With the cost of housing skyrocketing inside Green Line Israel, it does not take much to convince Israelis to buy low-cost, partially subsidized housing in a new settlement in the West Bank, and thousands of young couples are flocking to the promotional fairs put on by Housing Minister Ariel Sharon. Apparently immobilized by the Gulf war, the Israeli peace movement has yet to mount an effective response, even during Baker's frequent stopovers. His visits, instead of discouraging the building of settlements, have prompted the opposite reaction. In the course of one month alone during the spring, between Baker's first and third visits, 17,000 acres were confiscated in the West Bank. "What," Palestinians asked me in despair, "will be left of our land if and when we finally get our state?"

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