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Israel gobbles up West Bank land with suburbs

Large chunks of the occupied West Bank - home to 800,000 Palestinians - are in the process of becoming suburbs of Israel's metropolitan areas.

Israelis are being encouraged by the government and private developers to build their ''dream house'' at bargain prices on West Bank sites within commuting distance of Israel proper.

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This process of ''suburbanization'' makes irrelevant United States concern with freezing the number of Jewish settlements within the West Bank. President Reagan views a ''settlement freeze'' as a confidence-building measure to encourage moderate Arab states to join peace negotiations with Israel.

But by changing settlement emphasis from small agricultural cooperatives to urban settlements near Israel's border, the government may soon attract enough eager home-buyers to existing settlement sites to make it politically impossible for any future government to return this land to Arab control.

The Jewish Agency's settlement department has projected there will be 100,000 settlers on the West Bank by 1985. At present there are approximately 25,000 Jewish settlers in 103 West Bank settlements, compared to 3,500 settlers in 1977 , according to a Jewish Agency spokesman.

Meron Benvenisti explains that ''100,000 is the critical mass.'' He is the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and head of the West Bank Data Project, a recent study detailing land seizure and usage by Israel on the West Bank. ''With 50,000 Jewish voters on the West Bank, plus their relatives, you will have a pressure group which would create a tremendous obstacle to giving back West Bank land to Jordan or the Palestinians.''

Until recently, the figure of 100,000 was considered highly unlikely by opponents to the settlements. But now that the recruitment target has shifted from political and religious supporters of ''greater Israel'' to young couples in search of housing, the figure seems more realistic.

Mr. Benvenisti says, ''The capability of the Israeli housing industry outside Israel's boundaries is about 3,000 flats a year, housing 12-15,000 people. Within five years from now the government could achieve the 100,000 goal.''

The government strategy is ''rapid population of existing settlements with some new settlements here and there where it is necessary for the security of the area,'' says Zev Ben-Yosef, assistant to Matityahu Drobles, the architect of the ''100,000 plan.'' Greatest stress, he says, will be placed on ''areas [in the West Bank] close to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.''

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''The main idea,'' says Mr. Ben-Yosef, ''is to make it possible to meet the great demand for thousands of families, including immigrants from abroad who want to go to the West Bank and not to wait so long for housing.''

West Bank urban settlement sites near the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv metropolitan areas are slated to receive public funds only for infrastructure, leaving building to private firms or individuals. This will ease the government's primary settlement problem: lack of adequate funds.

The process has become as normalized as buying property in downtown Tel Aviv. ''Those who want to go to urban West Bank settlement can go directly to a building contractor or to the Housing Ministry,'' says Mr. Ben-Yosef.

Israeli weekend newspapers are filled with ads by private contractors suggesting ''you can build your dream house'' in various West Bank settlements. One recent two-page spread proclaimed: ''With a $15,000 initial deposit (first of six payments) you get a new villa and one dunam (one-quarter acre) of land . . . at Nofim, the most beautiful residential village in Israel.'' An area map omitting the boundaries between the West Bank and Israel proper shows Nofim (on the West Bank near Yakir) within easy commuting distance of Tel Aviv.

At a recent housing fair in Jerusalem there was brisk business at contractors' booths for Maaleh Adumim, a new apartment town planned for 50,000 between Jerusalem and Jericho that is just a 10-minute drive from the center of Jerusalem. Prices for a five-room garden villa were about one-third those in central Jerusalem and were accompanied by special low-interest loans and other benefits.

At the booth for Efrat, a planned town of 25,000 being built 12 miles south of Jerusalem between the Arab cities of Bethlehem and Hebron, a slick publication in English and Hebrew extolled: ''A young garden city . . . amid vineyards and woods. . . .''

On the hilltop site of Efrat, Arab workers are constructing circular rows of two-story white-stone villas with slanted red tile roofs. The villas look down on grape arbors, beside a newly plowed road. Next to the road elderly Fatma Hussein from nearby Khadr village shouted at a passing visitor: ''The Israelis took our land without even fighting. I still come for the grapes, but next year I don't know if I can come back.''

Expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank has been greatly facilitated by a new process of land seizure that makes available to Israeli authorities 55 to 65 percent of West Bank land, according to Mr. Benvenisti's studies. Until 1981 the Israeli authorities seized land registered as Jordan state domain, land that had been owned by Jews before 1948, land belonging to absentee Palestinian owners, land declared necessary for temporary military training purposes, which sometimes evolved into settlements, and land taken outright for ''vital . . . military requirements.''

Last year Mr. Benvenisti estimated that Israel controlled directly about 27 percent of the West Bank's 1.45 million acres.

But in 1981 the Israeli High Court ruled out expropriations for military reasons of land for civilian Jewish settlements. The government then turned to an Ottoman statute giving the Sultan or the current ruling power right to declare as state land all rocky, vacant, and uncultivated acreage.

The process is simple. The land is seized and declared state domain. Arabs who claim ownership then have 21 days to file objections before an administrative appeals court, the chairman of which is legal adviser to the Israeli Land Authority. Such lands are now considered to be under the jurisdiction of Jewish settlers' Regional Councils (see accompanying map), which also link Jewish West Bank residents with Israeli state services, courts, police , and taxes.

The ''second blade of the scissors'' in Israeli control of West Bank land is land-use planning, says Mr. Benvenisti. In a graphic illustration, Jamal Salman, Bethlehem municipal secretary, rolled out a brilliantly colored map - the Israeli plan for the West Bank region surrounding Jerusalem - which showed red dots of Arab villages choked by green stripes and patches. These marked areas are where Arab construction is totally or almost totally restricted.

The map covers more than 60,000 acres. A network of new roads in the area linking Jewish settlements, with new building forbidden 100 to 150 yards on either side, also thwarts Arab development, according to Mr. Benvenisti.

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