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Israel, in turn, was becoming increasingly reliant on the West Bank for water. A third of its entire supply was being drawn from aquifers under the highlands of the territory. Since 1967 all water resources in the territory have been put under Israeli state control. Palestinians who need to drill a well, or repair an old one, need a permit. Such permits, which require approvals from a variety of Israeli committees and departments for a single well, are rarely granted.

Today, Israelis consume five times as much water per head as Palestinians, many of whom must rely entirely on water trucked in from distant wells during the dry summer months. According to B'Tselem, inhabitants of the settlements, where swimming pools are plentiful and crop irrigation common, use even more water.

The 1993 Oslo Accords sparked the first moves by Israel to alleviate, at least partially, the effects of the occupation. Uri Savir, the chief Israeli negotiator, later wrote that it was during the peace talks leading to the Oslo Accords that he first learned that "a West Bank Palestinian could not build, work, study, purchase land, grow produce, start a business, take a walk at night, enter Israel, go abroad, or visit his family in Gaza or Jordan without a permit from us."

As part of the accords Israel agreed to withdraw its forces from the West Bank and Gaza, save those needed to guard settlements, over the course of five years, at the end of which the two sides would negotiate a final settlement leading to an independent Palestinian state.

In the interim, the territories were internally subdivided. In Area A the Palestinians had full control. Area B was under Palestinian administration with the Israelis retaining security control, while Area C remained under full Israeli control. However, each of the islands of territory under full or partial Palestinian control was divided by Area C territory, which might in some cases be a strip no more than 380 yards (350 meters) across—narrow enough for a tank to block. Security restrictions, progressively tightened since September 2000, have made movement to and from Palestinian enclaves ever more difficult and time consuming and, whenever the Israelis clamp down, impossible.

For a time the peace process that began in 1993 did bring an end to direct Israeli occupation in major Palestinian towns such as Nablus, Jenin, and Ramallah, all of which experienced a brief flicker of prosperity. But by March 2002, 67 percent of Palestinians in the occupied territories were living under the poverty level of two dollars a day.

Contributing to this decline was a sense of despair that since the mid-1980s had hastened the rise of Palestinian extremist groups. With the ineffectuality of the Palestinian Authority (PA), as Yasser Arafat's administration is called, and with every setback in the peace process, these groups have grown stronger. Suicide bombers attack Israeli civilians; the Israeli military assassinates suspected terrorists and restricts the movements of Palestinians; and the cycle of violence and hatred continues.

Meanwhile, since 1993, the number of settlers on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem has risen from 247,000 to 376,000. Most of them live in three large blocs that both hem in the Palestinian cities and divide them from each other, jeopardizing the cohesion of any future Palestinian state. On the western side of the West Bank, for example, the settler city of Ariel separates the major Palestinian towns of Qalqilyah, Nablus, and Ramallah. Farther south another bloc of settlements stretches east to within eight miles (thirteen kilometers) of the Jordan River, cutting the West Bank in two and dividing the 200,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem from Ramallah to the north. Southwest of Jerusalem yet another major settlement cluster sits between Bethlehem and Hebron.

In talks aimed at reaching a final agreement—in 2000 at Camp David and in early 2001 in Taba, Egypt—Israeli negotiators reportedly offered to hand over almost all the West Bank to full Palestinian control. Israelis were divided between those who resented such concessions and those who saw the settlements as an impediment to peace. In any event, Palestinian negotiators rejected the proposal, noting as their rationale that the proposed Palestinian state would be composed of disconnected parts, cut off from each other (and control of the water resources) and, crucially, from the vital economic center of East Jerusalem—from which Palestinians living outside the city are barred without special permission.

In March, following an onslaught of Palestinian suicide-bomber attacks against Israeli civilians, the Israeli army reoccupied many Palestinian-controlled areas and placed most of them under semipermanent curfew. The peace process, already stalled, went into abrupt reverse. Both sides now utterly distrust each other, and, even with PA elections coming in early 2003, the prospects for a Palestinian state worth the name are remote. The brighter days described in Babatha's second-century letters seem irretrievable. It's doubtful that Jews and Muslims, who only a century ago attended each other's religious festivities, will be doing so again anytime soon.

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