DATELINE: ISRAEL

The anguish of the West Bank

Robert A. Manning January 10 1983
DATELINE: ISRAEL

The anguish of the West Bank

Robert A. Manning January 10 1983

The anguish of the West Bank

DATELINE: ISRAEL

Robert A. Manning

The community of Ofra lies nestled between sun-baked, stone-strewn hills, some 30 minutes’ drive southeast of Jerusalem, just past the bustling Arab market town of Ramallah. Its prefab, concrete slab houses— modest but comfortable—stretch out in rows behind barbed wire fences and a guarded iron gate. Founded in 1975 as the first civilian Israeli settlement on the Arab West Bank, Ofra now serves as a dramatic symbol of the Israeli presence in the area that has evolved under Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s government. Although Ofra is now a community of about 135 families and has about 60 acres for farming, three metalworks companies, several carpentry shops, a printing plant and some light industry, it got its start as a settlers’ initiative. Its formal recognition by the Israeli government constituted one of the early victories of the militant Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), a militant right-wing settlers’ movement dedicated to redrawing the biblical b rders of Israel.

The Begin government’s commitment to Eretz Israel (Greater Yisrael) is underscored by the rapid growth in the number of settlements. When Begin took office in 1977, there were 24 settle-

ments, with 3,200 residents. Now there are 107 settlements, with more than 30,000 people, and construction is presently booming as Israel tries to reach its goal of 100,000 settlers on the West Bank by 1986. Shiffer Blass, 32, a United States-born Jew and translator of Hebrew and English, is one of Ofra’s pioneers who came to Israel in the early 1970s. She explains that, like many of the early settlers on the West Bank, she was astounded when she discovered that such biblical sites as Bethlehem were not part of Israel. “When I found out that there was a group acting on it,” she says, “I became involved.”

Israel’s creation of the settlements during its 15 years of occupation of the area has changed the face of the West Bank. Indeed, there is no physical boundary—either fence or checkpoint—separating Israel proper from the ancient pastoral land of Palestine, which was part of Jordan before the Six Day War in 1967 between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Israel is spilling over into parts of the West Bank, encroaching on

traditional Arab society.

The intrusion by the Israeli government has brought profound changes to the traditional way of life of the more than 800,000 Palestinians on the West Bank. One of the most painful changes for the Arabs was Israeli legislation that drastically changed the patterns of land and resource use. Shortly after capturing the West Bank in 1967, the Israelis took over property abandoned by Palestinians during the war and began leasing it to Jewish settlers. The Israeli government also assumed control of land that had been owned by Jordan. In 1968 Israeli military authorities on the West Bank stopped issuing land deeds to Arabs for territory categorized as “unsettled” (close to twothirds of all acreage). Now, many Arabs who had been farmers have been forced to take laborers’ jobs as a result of Israeli confiscation of their land or water resources. In fact, nearly 40 per cent of the Arab work force on the West Bank now commutes to pre-1967 Israel to work.

Since Arab appeals in Israeli courts have, on rare occasions, succeeded in overruling decisions by the military authorities, the Begin government has increasingly relied on an ancient Ottoman land code to defend its seizure of Arab land. According to the code, “vacant land, such as mountains, stony fields and grazing grounds, which is not in possession of anyone by title deed,” can be used by any person in need of such land “on the condition that the ultimate ownership shall belong to the Sultan.” A recent study conducted by Meron Benveniste, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, found that the Begin government has obtained access to more than 55 per cent of the 360,000 acres of land on the West Bank by citing the Ottoman statutes.

The land, according to Benveniste, is in the process of being declared stateowned. Not only is Israel encroaching on Arab land, but the country now obtains about 30 per cent of its water supply from the West Bank, making it increasingly difficult for those Arab farmers who remain to make a living off their parched land.

Unlike some of the earlier settlements, the new sites are often instant minitowns, situated close enough to Israel’s urban centres to permit residents to commute. Although there has been no shortage of Jewish candidates for relocation, the newer settlements are attracting a different breed of settler. Instead of seeking to stake historical claims and pitching tents on hilltops, the new arrivals are, more often than

not, looking for a good investment. The housing is cheap because of generous government loans, forgiven after five years, and land prices are low. Says one Israeli at Gilot, a 10,000-unit apartment complex on the outskirts of Jerusalem: “After five years I can sublet my flat. It is quite a worthwhile venture.”

What is a good deal for many Israelis is a mounting source of resentment for most Palestinians. Israel’s growing integration with the West Bank is regarded by Arabs as what Ibrahim Dakkak, head of the East Jerusalem-based Engineers’ Union, calls “the iron fist policy.” In the past two years the Begin government has removed seven elected Arab mayors on the West Bank and

Gaza Strip, replacing them with its own appointees. Although the Arab mayors were considered moderates, the Begin government felt they were sympathetic to the Palestine Liberation Organization. But many Arab West Bank residents think that the Israeli government is using the PLO as a subterfuge. Says Dakkak: “They want to destroy not just the PLO but Palestinian nationalism.”

As the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank grows, the Palestinian Arabs face increasing repression. They can now even be detained by authorities without charge. Some West Bank Arabs have had their homes razed by Israeli security police for being suspected of supporting resistance activities. Hardly a week goes by without some violent

incident. Recent tensions have focused on the refusal of lecturers at West Bank universities to accept an anti-PLO clause in their contract. As the controversy escalated last month, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz compared the pledge requirement to McCarthy-era tactics in the United States. Still, despite mounting Arab and World resistance, the Begin government continues full speed ahead with new towns. Last month it announced its decision to set up 35 more urban settlements on the West Bank. In desperation, some West Bank Arabs are beginning to register their protest. In one recent incident, Arabs took control of several East Jerusalem neighborhoods in an effort to prevent further Jewish settlement.

The dilemma of the West Bank is the existence of two peoples—Israeli and Palestinian—in one land. The fate of the occupied territories lies at the heart of Middle East conflict. In one sense, it is felt that even last summer’s Israeli invasion of Lebanon was, in large part, related to the West Bank. Explains Mordecai Gur, 52, a former Israeli military chief of staff and now a member of the Knesset: “The main goal of the Lebanon war was to solve the political problem on the West Bank.” Gur says that, by destroying the PLO, Begin and his defence minister, Ariel Sharon, hope to put an end to pro-PLO sympathy on the West Bank and encourage “moderate” Palestinians to co-operate. Yet the Israeli policies simply lead to greater frustration and mounting restiveness among the Palestinian Arabs. Explains a bitter Dakkak: “They take our land and our rights, and now they want our approval for it.”

The West Bank poses soul-searching questions for the people of Israel. Polls show approximately half of all Israelis support the government’s policies toward the occupied territories. But the expansionist policies of the Begin government have brought 1.2 million Arabs under the control of the Jewish state (about 400,000 from Gaza in addition to the 800,000 from the West Bank). Along with the 600,000 Arabs in Israel proper, there are now two million Arabs in a land of less than four million Jews, an imbalance that could radically alter the character of the Jewish state. For this reason it is unlikely that Israel will formally annex the West Bank. But, until some accommodation is made by both Israelis and Arabs, the West Bank will continue to fester. Says Avi Moses, an Israeli film-maker and photographer: “We’re entitled to live here, and so are the Palestinians. But I don’t know what it will take for everyone to realize that.” Adds Mordecai Gur: “We have to live in peace, and ultimately both sides will have to compromise.” But that will take time.