Israel Is Winning the Land War

The dispute between the two peoples is about land, and not about the personality of Yasser Arafat or Ariel Sharon. And in this battle for control of land on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it is Israel that has the upper hand.

The sense of humiliation and submission supposedly felt in Israel when the siege on the Muqata compound in Ramallah ended was exaggerated. So was the Palestinian feeling of victory. This Muqata affair represented a symbolic dimension of the dispute, one which obscures the fact that Israel notches up one victory after the other in the substantive struggle.

The dispute between the two peoples is about land, and not about the personality of Yasser Arafat or Ariel Sharon. And in this battle for control of land on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it is Israel that has the upper hand.

The struggle is waged on three main fronts. First, within the context of a security and separation fence (whose route is being designated according to the demands of settlers), West Bank Palestinians will lose tens of thousands of dunams of fertile agricultural land, as well as land awaiting development. Formally demarcated land that will be lost to the fence amounts "only" to several hundred dunams. But access to thousands of dunams that are of high value to their owners and to the Palestinian economy will be blocked.

At least 11 villages and their residents, houses and lands will be left in no man's land between the Green Line and the separation fence. Since their location in the security and separation zone will be regarded as a nuisance, these villages are likely to come under special military rule and subject to severe restrictions on movement - further hobbling the residents ability to use the land resources that remain in their hands. Residents of at least another 20 villages will find that the lion's share of their lands falls west of the fence and only built-up areas will lie east of it. Judging by what had happened in the cases of fences built around Jewish settlements, and which enclose lands that have not officially been "annexed," it is not hard to guess what will happen to these villagers. Landowners will not be able to get to their plots and cultivate them. Sometimes, the villagers will find that keys to an iron gate are nowhere to be found among the soldiers in the army unit deployed on the site. Other times, dogs will scare away the landowners. Then there will be times when a settlement's security officer threatens the Palestinians, or the army puts them under curfew.

In addition to being unable to work their lands, Palestinians living in the shadow of the separation fence will face stringent restrictions on their ability to market their goods - such limitations have already been in effect for two years in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The right to market goods is the second front in the struggle over land, and the limitations squeeze the incomes and the futures of 60 percent of Palestinians who live in villages.

Because of the severe internal closures, it is easier in Palestinian cities to find guava grown in Israel than in a nearby village. A Tnuva vehicle with Israeli license plates and an Israeli Arab driver can drive on the best roads in the West Bank - roads that are closed to Palestinians. Marketing restrictions have in the past two years turned Palestinian agriculture into an unproductive, almost quixotic, undertaking. Israel's economy has suffered negligible damage because of this - but losses sustained by the Palestinian economy generally, and the agriculture sector in particular, have been devastating. Will this individual and collective misery and indigence renew and accelerate the phenomenon of private land sales to Jews?

The third front is bureaucratic. What remains from the Oslo process is the Palestinian agreement empowering Israel to limit Palestinian construction on 60 percent of the West Bank's lands, on "C" areas (which are under Israeli administrative control). All construction and development on these lands requires Israeli approval, even in the case of privately owned land.

Two weeks ago, for example, IDF troops and the civil administration demolished 34 housing units in a residential neighborhood built by the Palestinian workers' association at a village near Ramallah - it turns out that some of the lands in the neighborhood are located in "B" areas (under Palestinian administrative control), and some are "C" lands. A work stoppage order was issued a year ago but the demolition, Palestinians say, was done without advance warning and without the residents having a chance to seek legal recourse.

The determination of Israeli authorities to prevent "transgressions" in this building sphere bears notice, especially when compared to the authorities' lack of diligence when it comes to doing anything about Jewish holding settlements, and the continuing "legal" building in settlements.

Security measures enacted by Israel are not chosen to jibe with supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state on the June 4, 1967 borders - nor with standards adopted by the international community. Israel's security measures - including those selected during the Oslo years - put new facts on the ground so as to influence diplomatic negotiations, and promote an ongoing campaign to expand the swathe of Palestinian territory that the state of Israel will grab for itself.