Israel, on Its Own, Is Shaping the Borders of the West Bank

By STEVEN ERLANGER

New York Times

April 18, 2005

MAALE ADUMIM, West Bank, April 18 - They're building away here in Israel's largest settlement, with Palestinian workers laboring on new apartment houses overlooking the red-brown hills of the West Bank.

Israel's intentions to keep building next to this suburb about three miles from Jerusalem have set off a small furor with the Bush administration, which is putting pressure on Israel to keep a commitment to freeze settlement growth.

But the construction and planning at Maale Adumim and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to pull 9,000 Israeli settlers out of the Gaza Strip this summer are only parts of a far larger and more complex transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian landscape, and of Mr. Sharon's policies themselves.

In effect, Israel under Mr. Sharon is unilaterally moving to define its future borders with a Palestinian state - with the scheduled withdrawal from Gaza and from four small settlements in the northern West Bank, with the "thickening" of settlements near Jerusalem and the Israeli border, and with a new route for the Israeli separation barrier approved by the cabinet on Feb. 20.

Palestinians are furious that Israel is moving without waiting for negotiations. But the likely impact of the provisional new border on Palestinian life is, perhaps surprisingly, smaller than generally assumed, and it would leave about a quarter of Israeli settlers on the Palestinian side.

Pressed by the Israeli Supreme Court and the United States, Mr. Sharon has pulled the separation barrier much closer than it had been to Israel's 1967 boundaries, which were the armistice lines of the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war and became known as the green line.

Even including the three major Israeli settlement blocs of Maale Adumim, Ariel further north and Gush Etzion in the south, the land between the green line and the barrier is 8 percent of the West Bank - close to the 5 percent in the proposal that President Clinton was putting forward in 2000, at the end of his negotiations with the Palestinians and the Israelis.

And even that provisional, unilateral 8 percent, before final-status negotiations begin, means that 99.5 percent of Palestinians would live outside the barrier, in 92 percent of the West Bank, with 74 percent of Israeli settlers inside it.

"The real point is being lost in the spat over Maale Adumim," said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The contours of the debate over the West Bank have shifted under our eyes.

"People associate Sharon with being Mr. Settlement and react with a certain churlishness, saying he's trying to trade Gaza for the West Bank. But the real story is how Mr. Settlement, who wanted to build on 100 percent of the West Bank, is down to 8 percent. If we're talking about Maale Adumim, it means that Sharon sees this as the main battleground, not Elon Moreh or the Jordan Valley."

Palestinians do not see that as a victory. They argue that all Israeli settlements beyond the green line are illegal. They reject the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 and say that the 8 percent of the West Bank inside the barrier is among the best land for housing and agriculture. Unilateralism, they say, is no substitute for negotiations.

Saeb Erekat, the veteran Palestinian negotiator, said, "If this project is carried out, it will mean shutting the door for negotiations and peace and putting more Palestinians effectively into prison."

Eight percent is half of what the figure was last summer, before the Israeli Supreme Court told the government to move the barrier closer to the green line. The new route has sharply reduced the number of Palestinians caught inside the barrier: fewer than 10,000 of the two million Palestinians in the West Bank.

Those figures do not include East Jerusalem, which contains about 175,000 Israelis and about 195,000 Palestinians.

About 85,000 Palestinians, the Defense Ministry says, live with Israeli identity cards on the Israeli side of the barrier. The Palestinian population is growing by about 3.3 percent annually, and the Israeli population by less than 1 percent.

Thousands more Palestinians live in areas like Qalqilya, which are no longer formally behind the barrier, but where they must cross through gates that can be sealed quickly.

Still, Israelis argue, the hardships of the barrier are now less severe and affect fewer Palestinians than before. Israeli officials point out that even the final proposal being considered at the end of Mr. Clinton's negotiations awarded some West Bank land to Israel, with land transfers to the Palestinians to make up the difference. And the Palestinians, in every negotiation so far, have seemed ready to cede Maale Adumim to the Israelis for other land.

Ariel may be a different matter, given how far it sticks out into the West Bank. But even with Ariel, the Israeli government has agreed with Washington not to fully enclose the area, which would trap thousands of Palestinians in enclaves. Instead it uses local fences around settlements and increased army patrols.

Within the new route of the barrier but outside the green line are some 177,000 Israelis living mostly in these large settlement blocs - about 74 percent of Israeli settlers. The other 26 percent, about 63,000, live in the West Bank beyond the barrier.

That 26 percent, some in isolated, heavily guarded settlements or in small outposts, are likely to find themselves stranded in an independent Palestine or having to move, for it is highly unlikely that in any negotiation this notional Israeli border, along the barrier's route, will move farther into the West Bank.

Mr. Sharon's barrier has spelled out the future for those settlers, but removing them could make the coming Gaza evacuation seem like a walk in the park, especially when talking about fiercely ideological settlements like Ofra and Beit El.

Israel argues that the barrier is not a border but merely a temporary security measure that can be moved or removed in accordance with negotiations. But Israel is building inside the new route - at Maale Adumim, for example - as if it will be a border, or close to one.

Mr. Makovsky has analyzed the changing route of the barrier and done population estimates, village by village, with census figures and a C.I.A. projection of annual population growth rates. "Clinton was down to 5 percent of the West Bank, and here you are down to 8 percent before final-status negotiations," Mr. Makovsky said. "It has to be modified and agreed upon by the parties, but before our eyes we see the rough shape of a two-state solution."

While the politicians argue, nothing stops.

Settlement construction is continuing on the West Bank, though more slowly than was the case two years ago, in apparent violation of Mr. Sharon's commitment in the first stage of the road map to freeze settlement growth. Mr. Sharon says the road map is not yet in force because the Palestinians have not met their own first-stage obligation to dismantle terrorist organizations. The population of West Bank settlements is increasing by about 5.6 percent a year.

Nor has Mr. Sharon yet kept his promise to Mr. Bush to dismantle illegal settlement outposts built after March 2001 - at least 24 of the 105 illegal outposts disclosed in an Israeli study.

In the meantime, Mr. Sharon and Washington continue negotiating what a freeze means, with Israel being pushed to define where existing construction stops within large settlement areas like Maale Adumim, which was established in 1975. Israeli officials say Washington will allow construction within existing built-up areas but not outside them.

Even that position, which American officials will not publicly confirm, seem to violate Israel's promises under the road map to freeze settlement growth after March 2001, including natural growth.

That is why Mr. Bush was so upset, and publicly so, about the announcement that Israel was planning 3,500 new units in a 4.6-square-mile area known as E1, adjacent to Maale Adumim, enough to house 14,000 new settlers.

The mayor of Maale Adumim, Benny Kashriel, says the community of 32,000, with its flowerbeds and shopping mall, is widely accepted as part of Israel and will stay that way, so that new construction is necessary to survive. "We're building in Maale Adumim territory," he said. "We're not expanding at all."

Large municipal boundaries around smaller communities are a standard Israeli device, critics say, to make it seem that new settlement construction is merely "thickening" existing settlements. The official municipal boundaries of Maale Adumim are huge, larger than Tel Aviv's, and stretch nearly to Jericho. The settlement is built up on only about 15 percent of its official area.

Given the proximity to Jerusalem, the passions on both sides are intense. Israelis want E1 to provide contiguity of Jewish settlement around Jerusalem, while Palestinians want it to ensure contiguity of Palestinian settlement between East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Mr. Sharon says the plan will go ahead, even if not immediately. "It is the Israeli position," he said, standing next to Mr. Bush last week, "that the major Israeli population centers will remain in Israel's hands under any future final-status agreement, with all related consequences."

For Dror Etkes of Peace Now, there is no quick or painless solution. "Israeli society is going through a very hard period and has to learn to redefine itself after 40 years as a non-occupying country," he said. "This is not going to end easily."