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Israel slides toward the disastrous one-state trap

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- The banners that hang from downtown lampposts are emblazoned with the numeral 40. Black-and-white photos of soldiers capturing the Old City are on exhibit at museums. But there's no mood of celebration on the 40th anniversary of Israel's historic victory in the Six-Day War, which led to the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

Few Israelis imagined, back then, that they would still control the lives of millions of Palestinians in 2007. Polls have long shown that majorities of Israelis and Palestinians accept the idea of two states. Yet the Oslo peace process has collapsed into mutual recriminations and violent chaos in Gaza. Palestinian and Israeli leaders are too weak to produce new ideas. The sense of drift is overwhelming.

Few will admit that the idea of a two-state solution is dead, because the alternatives - for both sides - are so grim. But what I saw last week as I traveled the villages and dusty, terrace-lined West Bank hills was extremely troubling.

Events on the ground are pushing Israelis and Palestinians toward a de facto one-state situation. If the two-state concept dies, Israel is left ruling more than 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and effectively controlling an additional 1.4 million in Gaza. Add to that more than 1 million Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel.

What will that mean?

"Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean are 10 million to 11 million people," says the noted Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, who has long been a campaigner for two states. "It's very clear, with the Palestinian birthrate, which is one of the highest in the world, that almost in no time there will be a clear majority of Arabs in this state."

Israel will then have to choose between giving those Arabs political rights or stand accused of running a system that resembles apartheid. But enfranchising an Arab majority would spell the end of the Jewish state. No one except a naif or a political propagandist could believe that Israelis and Palestinians could live together in one state without civil war. Proponents of one state are mainly extremists such as Hamas who want one state without Jews, or ultranationalist Israelis who would like to expel the Palestinians. But what I saw on this trip makes me fear that Israel is headed in the one-state direction by default.

Drive out of Jerusalem with yellow Israeli license plates, and you are entitled to travel on a network of highways that whiz you across the West Bank and back into Israel. But those roads are mostly off-limits to Palestinians with white West Bank plates.

The prospect for any kind of viable Palestinian state is disappearing as Palestinian land and towns are split into disconnected cantons by these roads, by Israeli settlements, and by Israel's security fence. Villagers must procure hard-to-get permits to visit their land or to pass through gates in the security fence. Crops rot because families can't get enough permits to reach their land, or because villagers can't travel to the towns to sell their produce.

For security reasons, Israel has limited Palestinian travel into and out of most towns and villages in ways that can make farming and commerce almost impossible. Off the road to Hebron, I stood on a rocky hill overlooking several Arab villages consisting of boxy concrete houses in a valley below the apartment buildings and villas of the settlement Rosh Zurim. A well-paved settler road was paralleled by a broken, potholed part-dirt road that curved to the Arab village of Khallet Sakariya. But Israel had blocked this access road with boulders, forcing villagers to detour miles out of their way to a permissible road.

Farther south, Palestinian traffic to the major town of Hebron is funneled through a narrow urban road in nearby Halhoul that is not suited for heavy commerce. Drivers on Palestinian roads find themselves suddenly cut off by the Israeli security wall and fence, which zigzags across roads and Palestinian lands, linking many Israeli settlements to pre-1967 Israel. As I drove into Bethlehem, I suddenly found myself hemmed in by a segment of the tall concrete slabs of the wall that protects the Jewish religious site of Rachel's Tomb.

Since the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, Israel has had genuine reasons for concern about security and preventing movement of suicide bombers into Israel. But the network of walls, fences, berms, tunnels, checkpoints and restricted roads chops Palestinian land and life into segments that make commerce, let alone statehood, impossible.

"It might be efficient for security, but it has wrecked the economy and social fabric, and restricted the ability to get to hospitals or schools," David Shearer, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem, told me. It is now almost impossible, for example, for West Bank Palestinians to enter the Arab part of Jerusalem, which contains the best Palestinian hospitals and used to be the West Bank's intellectual and religious hub.

Again, none of this is to dispute Israel's genuine security needs. Yet much of the security infrastructure on the West Bank seems dedicated more to protecting the Jewish settlers who live there than protecting pre-1967 Israel. Settlements keep expanding, requiring even more protection and making it even less likely that Palestinians can get a contiguous state.

In this uncertain political time, it may be impossible to make any headway toward two states. But it makes no sense to close off that possibility for the future with infrastructure and settlements that are expanding and have an air of permanence. I spoke with an extraordinary Israeli human rights activist who works to help Palestinians get access to Jerusalem hospitals, and asked her thoughts on whether Israel is creating a one-state trap.

"The Israeli public is asleep on this," said Hadas Ziv, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, Israel. In the wake of the failed Lebanon war and the Gaza troubles, Israelis "don't want to know [about West Bank conditions]. They don't know what to do. There is public desperation."

Ms. Ziv believes the international community should raise the issue: "I think it would do good for Israelis to hear it, if you say it with sympathy. Otherwise, Israelis will have to face it alone, and no one will sympathize."

Surely this is a subject on which the Bush administration, as a friend of Israel, should weigh in strongly. Otherwise, the slide toward a one-state reality will continue until it cannot be reversed.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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