Walling Off The West Bank?

The death of 19 Israelis in a Jan. 22 bombing attack in central Israel has prompted the government to take its most serious look yet at the feasibility of total separation from the territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is proposing the establishment of a Cabinet-level committee to study the economic and security considerations of such a step. The most difficult problem confronting the Israelis would be what to do about their 150,000 settlers who now live in the West Bank.

Rabin has already ordered the territories sealed off from Israel--as he has done many times in recent years following similar incidents. Finance Ministry sources say that a permanent cutoff from the territories would not be that disruptive to the Israeli economy, because with a gross domestic product of $75 billion, it is more than 30 times the size of the Palestinian economy. The number of Palestinians who travel to Israel to work each day has already been cut to about 60,000 from a peak of some 130,000 several years ago. Israel has brought in about 50,000 workers from Asia and Eastern Europe to take jobs in agriculture and construction.

Long-term separation, however, would be devastating to the Palestinian economy. Despite their animosity toward Israel, Palestinians get much of their income from work in the Jewish state. If they are kept out, tension in the occupied territories is likely to increase, making Yassir Arafat's already shaky grasp on power even more tenuous.

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