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http://www3.haaretz.co.il/eng/scripts/article.asp?id=65685&mador=4&datee=01/10/00

A struggle for the open spaces

By Danny Rubinstein, Ha'aretz, 01/10/2000

Next week, Israel is set to hand over another 6 percent of the West Bank to full Palestinian control. This will complete the transfer of lands in the framework of the first two stages of the withdrawal (redeployment), and the Palestinian Authority will then have control of 42 percent of the West Bank. Some half of this land will be under full Palestinian control, in other words area A, while the remaining half will be defined as Area B, in which the Palestinians have civilian control but security control remains in Israeli hands. The two sides are still in disagreement as to the nature of territories to be handed over next week. Will they be populated areas near Jerusalem, as the Palestinians are demanding (referring to the large urban neighborhoods of a-Ram, al-Azariya and Abu Dis), or will they be empty hilly areas in the heart of Samaria or adjacent to the Jordan Valley, as Israel is proposing?

It is safe to assume that this dispute will be solved, but it provides a foretaste of the main struggle with Israel over the fate of the remaining 60 percent of the West Bank, which is about to begin. Apparently, Israel and the Palestinians are split on a host of well-known issues, but in reality, there is little left to discuss on two of these matters: On the question of statehood, Israel will agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories, and on the matter of refugees there will be no solution because Israel will not agree to the return of Palestinians to its borders. What remain are the questions of Jerusalem, the Jewish settlements and the borders, which are in fact all one question: Territory.

In other words, separating Israel and the Palestinians ultimately comes down to one central problem of how to divide the land. The struggle over this question is split into two stages by the agreement: A battle over the third redeployment, after which Israel is to remain in control only of the settlements and "military areas" in the territories, and a battle over the final status arrangement, in other words, over the permanent borders between the state of Israel and the Palestinians.

These facts form the backdrop to an internal Palestinian debate on how to conduct the negotiations with Israel. Some members of the Palestinian negotiating team believe that there is no point in fighting with Israel for full control of the populated areas surrounding Jerusalem because Israel does not really want to control these areas. In their opinion, it is important to fight even at this stage, for the 6 percent that is to be handed over next week: for the remote and empty areas in the Hebron hills and Samaria, the Jordan Valley and Judean desert, because these are the territories that hold the potential for developing the West Bank.

These territories, the vast majority of which are under full Israeli rule (Area C), are vital for the Palestinians, because only there can they set up development factories, expand the growing West Bank Arab settlements, and most importantly, settle 1948 refugees from Gaza or abroad. Two recent events have demonstrated to the Palestinians how important these territories are. One is the opening of the safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, which has already been used by some 20,000 Gazans coming to the West Bank in search of work. Most are refugees trying to escape the hardships of life in besieged Gaza. But the welcome they receive in the West Bank is not warm. They are viewed as competition in the work force and the cause of social problems. The Palestinian authorities have realized that they must plan carefully for the possible absorption of hundreds of thousands of Gazans into the West Bank, and that the only viable option is to set up new development towns for them in the empty expanses of the Jordan Valley and Judean Desert.

The second piece of evidence highlighting the importance of these areas is the increasing hardship experienced by Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. If in Syria, Jordan and other Arab states the refugee problem can wait a while, in Lebanon the situation is potentially explosive. As the negotiations with Syria progress, the Lebanese are demanding that the refugees be removed from their territory. The Palestinian refugees themselves do not want to stay in Lebanon and are eager to emigrate, but have nowhere to go. A few have managed to get visas to various Scandinavian countries and to Canada, but the vast majority are sitting on a keg of dynamite. Every day, there are reports in the Palestinian press of tension and clashes in the refugee camps in Lebanon. A senior PA official said last week that there were talks with Israel on immediately moving several dozens refugees from Lebanon to the Palestinian Authority, headed by Sultan Abu-Einein (the Fatah leader sentenced to death by a Lebanese court and hiding somewhere near Tyre). In the near future, some 100,000 to 200,000 refugees will be forced to leave Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority believes that the only place to absorb them will be those empty spaces in the West Bank, over which the main struggle with Israel is about to begin.


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