View of the West Bank

TEL AVIV, Israel –
Local leaders often take visitors to Jewish settlements occupying the high
ground of the northern West Bank to lookout points from where, on a clear day,
they can see the glass towers of Tel Aviv, the shimmering waters of the
Mediterranean and the contours of Israel’s heavily populated coastal plain.

The aim is to
underline the strategic dangers that the leaders say would be inherent in any
Israeli withdrawal from the area to make way for a Palestinian state.

In an effort to
illustrate the other side of the argument, Peace Now, the leftist Israeli group
that advocates a two-state solution and monitors settlement activity, took a
planeload of Israeli members of parliament, reporters and photographers on an
aerial tour of the northern West Bank recently.

The group’s goal was
to give a bird’s-eye view of the growth of the settlements and outposts across
the hilltops, and to argue that if the settlements do not stop spreading, the
land between the Jordan River and the sea will soon become indivisible for all
practical purposes, and the two-state option will cease to exist.

“The point,” Peace
Now’s secretary general, Yariv Oppenheimer, said over the plane’s public
address system, “is to see how the reality has changed and how the binational state
is getting closer.”

Israelis remain
deeply split on the settlement issue. Although most polls indicate that a
majority believe a two-state solution is the only way to guarantee Israel’s
continuation as a state with a strong Jewish majority, many also feel a
religious or emotional attachment to the West Bank as the country’s biblical

Israel’s partial
moratorium on the building of new settler homes ended recently, posing a
serious threat to the fledgling Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. With the
Palestinians warning that a resumption of construction will spell the end of
the negotiations, the looming deadline seemed to have concentrated minds on all
sides. Peace Now used to use small planes that flew low over the West Bank for
research purposes, but citing security reasons, the Israeli authorities no
longer allow civilian planes or helicopters to fly low over the area. So the
passenger jet used by the group took off at midday from Sde Dov, a small
airfield on the Tel Aviv shore. Within minutes, it had crossed Israel’s
so-called narrow waist and was flying over the West Bank territory that Israel
captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.

Between the sprawling
Palestinian towns and villages, the settlements, which are considered by much
of the world to be a violation of international law, stood out distinctively,
neat rows of red-roofed houses often built in concentric circles embracing the

Several settlements,
like Shiloh and Beit El, were named after biblical landmarks. Many have expanded
onto nearby hills, with rows or small knots of mobile homes making up new
outposts that are illegal by Israeli standards. Some 300,000 Israelis now live
in the West Bank, about 11 percent of the population there, according to Peace

In an effort to present
an alternative to the two-state solution, some right-wing Israeli officials and
commentators have offered vague notions of a peace based on Israeli-Palestinian
coexistence in some kind of single-state arrangement, relying on findings by an
Israeli researcher who says there are fewer Palestinians in the West Bank than
commonly thought. Others on the right insist that the Palestinian state should
be established in Jordan. Neither idea has any broad Israeli support.

It is clear from the
air that empty sections of land remain on the West Bank, offering potential for
much more building. The question is for whom. After zigzagging back and forth
across the West Bank, the plane landed back at Sde Dov in less than an hour,
the short distances attesting to the apparent dangers in both dividing – and
not dividing – the land.