A MONTH after Israel sealed off the occupied territories, keeping nearly 100,000 Palestinians away from their work, the United Nations yesterday began distributing emergency food supplies to the West Bank.
The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) will provide flour and powdered milk to 39,000 needy families. But many Palestinians, barred since late March from entering Israel, now wonder whether they will ever get their jobs back.
"The intention is that this should be a prolonged closure... preventing the free movement of Palestinians from the [occupied] territories inside Israel," Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said yesterday. "The situation will not return to what it was before."
What began as a hasty security measure after 15 Israelis were stabbed or shot to death in less than four weeks has hardened into a full-fledged government policy with wide-ranging political and economic effects, observers here say.
"The government started by responding to desperation" at the wave of stabbings, says Akiva Eldar, a political commentator with the daily Ha'aretz. "Now they seem to like it."
Until the West Bank and Gaza Strip were sealed, about 110,000 Palestinians entered Israel every day to work, mostly in construction and agriculture, according to government figures. Today, only 15,400 Palestinians have permits to work outside the territories. On the security front, the policy has "worked better than we could have expected," Mr. Rabin said recently. There have been no stabbings inside Israel this month.
That has made the closure of the territories popular among Israelis. But it has also come to serve the government's political ends in the Middle East peace talks that resumed this week in Washington. Seeking to prepare Israelis for a settlement that would cede land to Palestinian control, the Labor government has brought back the concept of the "green line," the border between Israel and the occupied territories that previous right-wing Likud Party governments had sought to efface through their settlemen t policy.
"In the long term it's a very healthy development for the collective Israeli mind," Mr. Eldar argues. "It means a change in perceptions. Now that there are roadblocks [between Israel and the occupied territories] people understand that there is some kind of border."
Recognition of such borders is a goal shared, in theory, by the Palestinians, but the current closure is proving extremely painful.
"We calculate that by the end of the fourth week of the closure, families that depended on jobs in Israel for their income have now run out of their savings," says Samir Hleileh, head of the Economic Development Group, a Palestinian organization that funnels foreign funds into the territories. Relief distribution
Although UNWRA would like to distribute food aid to all Palestinian families, it is concentrating first on refugees because of a shortage of funds. "Canvassing our donors would delay us weeks," explains UNWRA spokesman Sandro Tucci. "We feel that the situation is such that we have to move right away."
The closure has so far cost the Palestinian economy $120 million, according to Mr. Hleileh. Unemployment, normally around 20 percent in the occupied territories, has risen above 50 percent, he estimates.
The Israeli government has sought to remedy this with the injection of $71 million into public works projects in the territories. But authorities also are reshaping the Israeli economy to make it less dependent on cheap Palestinian labor.
"We are trying to use the situation to make structural changes in the Israeli labor market," says David Leffler, director of the Employment Service. "We want to get more Israelis into construction and agriculture."
The government will clamp down on the hiring of unregistered Palestinian workers - 40,000 until the closure, the government counts - and supplement low agricultural wages to encourage Israelis to take farming jobs.
Once all the policies are in place, predicts Hanna Zohar, who heads Cav le Oved, a workers' rights watchdog, "the closure will be maintained, and no more than 30,000 Palestinians will be given work permits."
Even if all the 70,000 Palestinians who were legally employed in Israel were eventually allowed back, they will only be permitted to go to and from their jobs. East Jerusalem
That stipulation puts one of the most contentious issues in the peace talks at the center of attention. Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its own, and which is thus currently off-limits to residents of the occupied territories, is the heart of Palestinian commerce, politics, and culture.
It also lies between the northern and southern regions of the West Bank, making passage between the two sectors impossible without passing through Israel. If the closure is to last, that problem must be overcome. This week the Israeli government indicated its long-term intentions. Bulldozers went to work on a new West Bank road that bypasses the city.