For Arabs and Jews alike the struggle for land has been at the heart of the controversy in the Middle East since World War I. Two developments have highlighted this struggle on the West bank of the Jordan River during the past few days.
Near the new Jewish settlement of Nebi Salah, near the West Bank town of Ramallah, Arab farmers won a temporary injunction in an Israeli high court against the government's seizure of land. The bulldozers that had been preparing land for the settlers were ordered to stop their work, and a wire fence that the Israelis had erected was ordered torn down on Thursday.
In another development, the residents of West Bank towns began to notice some weeks ago that powers of attorney for transactions concerning land belonging to Arabs residing abroad were not being processed by the Israeli authorities. The ban caused Arabs to worry that this was a first step leading to expropriation of land belonging to Arabs who reside abroad, as many do rather than live under occupation.
When the Arabs, notably Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij, raised a fuss the government quickly backed down. By week's end absentee-owned land transactions were being processed again and the government claimed that the temporary ban had been in effect only to guard against forged powers of attorney.
In the case of the court-ordered halt at Nebi Salah, the Arabs claimed that some of the land in question was private while the government claimed it was public. The Israeli government maintains that it does not take private land for Jewish settlements - only land that was public under Jordanian law.
Many Arabs as well as international organizations and diplomatic sources refute this claim, however, and say that in certain cases private land has been taken to build Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
The United States, as well as most of the international community, holds that it is illegal under the Geneva Convention for the Israelis to settle any of their occupied territories not matter whether the land be public or private. The Israelis do not agree.
In any case, the court victory of the Arab farmers is only temporary as a final court decision has not been made.
These developments come at a time when there is a great deal of discussion about Defense Minister Ezer Weizman's proposal to establish six urban centers on the West Bank - a program that many town planners prefer over Agriculture Minister Arael Sharon's idea of many small Jewish settlements scattered over the West Bank. Either way it means more land taken from the Arabs on the occupied West Bank.
No decision has yet been made, but the government of Israel leaves an impression of confusion and deciet as it lurches from one scheme to another and, as far as the Arabs are concerned, each new Israeli settlement in the occupied territories drives another nail into the coffin of a peace based on territorial compromise.
"The twice promised land," cynics called the old Britishc mandate of Palestine because the British, in their effort to rally support, gave the impression they were promising Palestine to both the Arabs and the Jews. But the two great nationalist movements, the Zionist and the Arab cause, were beginning to come into conflicts as early as the turn of the century.
Today, no less than before, the question of land is still at the heart of the problem. "The specter of Judea and Samaria is haunting Israel's national life," the Jerusalem Post said in a recent editorial.
There is agreement in Israel that the territory taken in the 1967 war should never again be used as a base to threaten Israel militarily but beyond that there is little agreement. Some Israelis wish to settle the land with Jews and the supporters of Prime Minister Menachem Begin think he made a great concession not annexing the West Bank and Gaza Strip outright.
Others would agree with the Jerusalem Post editorial, which concluded that, "By draining Israel's credibility and dividing the nation it is not exaggerating to say that the effort to make the mostly Arab areas of Judea and Samaria Jewish has become an intolerable burden on the Jewish state."
As Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin has said, if Israel holds on to the occupied territories and a million unhappy Arabs it can choose between remaining a Jewish state or a demoncratic state but it could not long remain both.
For the Arabs, who now see that a great mistake was made when so many Arabs fled their land in what is now Israel proper, holding on to their land is the best and perhaps the only way to insure that they can survive as a people in the occupied territories. They fear that the Israelis would like to dirve them off their land and they see the sprouting of Jewish settlements as the first step in a process of rendering them homeless. Keeping the land has become, for the Arabs on the West Bank, a patriotic act.
The Israeli government's current plant to grant the west bank and the gaza strip self-rule would leave both security and "public order" in Israeli hands. It would also limit the right of Arabs to purchase land in Israel proper to those Arabs who would choose Israeli citizenship while Jews could settle on the West Bank without changing their citizenship.
This "effectively underminded the pretence of an equally of rights between Jews and Arabs," the Jerusalem Post said. "Lacking such a cover of respectability, the settlements drive had to be conducted - especially since Mr. Begin decided that it could not be halted even for the duration of the peace talks - by stealth, by prevarication and by false denials," he paper charges.
The most obvious case of deception was when the government allowed members of the Gush Emunim, whom many Israelis consider to be near fanatics, to settle on the site of ancient Shiloh under the pretence that they were conducting an archaelogical dig a few months ago.