In a scruffy little stone cottage in the West Bank, a house so crowded that the kitchen doubles as a shower stall and the pantry makes do as a bedroom, Bisara Aranki, his wife and seven grown children live and wait.
Aranki, a Palestinian Christian who rents the little house, has sought a permit to build his own home for years. In his plans, it would be a bigger home, rising on a patch of land his family owns just outside Taybeh, a sleepy town 30 miles northeast of Jerusalem known mostly for its brewery. But his application has been denied repeatedly by Israeli authorities, who still control the outskirts of town where the family lot sits.
Now the countdown has begun for Aranki, and time is short. In October, he expects to be evicted by the house's new owner. At about the same time, Israel will begin handing over more chunks of land in the West Bank to Palestinian control.
These events may seem unrelated, but to Aranki, 69, the connection is critical. For if Israel's land transfer includes his little plot on the edge of town, he is certain Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority will grant him permission to build his dream house.
"If my land goes under Palestinian control, I'll drink champagne, if I can find it," said Aranki, a retired waiter. He smiled ruefully, sorting through a fistful of architectural drawings, application forms and official rejections. "I know the Palestinian Authority would let me build in no time."
Six years after the land-for-peace formula was inaugurated in the Oslo accords, the vast majority of the 1.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank remain constricted by Israel's 32-year-old occupation. They live in cities, towns and villages formally classified as fully or partially under Palestinian control. But as Aranki and others like him are all too aware, in practical terms the reach of Palestinian control in the West Bank often extends no farther than the town limits--and sometimes not even that far.
In towns such as Taybeh, the diplomatic questions of long-term peace and security, Palestinian statehood and the fate of millions of refugees seem remote. More to the point, people here say, is which side will control the rocky fields, arid hills and orchards of gnarled olive trees that separate one Arab town from the next.
Arafat, eager for more territorial control, is pressing Israel to move ahead with additional land transfers agreed to after the Oslo accord and, with strong U.S. urging, promised again last October in the accord reached at the Wye River Plantation near Washington. But for now, Israel still has exclusive jurisdiction over 71 percent of West Bank territory and it retains security control in 90 percent. That means even though towns such as Taybeh are under Palestinian civil administration--partial control--Israeli troops still patrol the streets from time to time and stop and search Palestinian cars at random.
The West Bank is honeycombed with the apparatus of three decades of Israeli control. With 170,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank and roads to service them crisscrossing the area, Palestinian autonomy, even as it spreads, is likely to remain a somewhat limited patchwork for the foreseeable future.
Near Taybeh, for example, the Israeli air force maintains a strategically important observation station atop Baal Hatsor, one of the highest peaks in the area. Just to the west of Taybeh, 1,500 Israelis live in the the Jewish settlement of Ofra. Farther west, Israel runs a large military base and administrative office near another Jewish settlement, Beit El.
On the land that Israel still controls outright, Palestinians complain that building permits are often difficult to obtain and applications can get tangled in bureaucratic and administrative red tape.
"Everyone in town owns land between here and Jericho," said Fouad Taye, the courtly 60-year-old mayor of Taybeh, referring to the parched hills and olive orchards east of town, which Israel regards as an important military buffer between itself and the Arab world. "But almost no one has gotten a permit to build on it."
Israeli officials insist the rules make sense and are fairly applied, but acknowledge that money and planning expertise are needed to obtain building permits. "To come up with a plan can cost a lot of money," said Shlomo Dror, of Israel's civil administration operation in the West Bank. "But you can usually get an answer in two weeks."
Under the Wye River deal, Israel was to cede an additional 13 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, leaving Arafat in full or partial control of 40 percent of the territory.
The Israeli pullback began last November, tripling the area under exclusive Palestinian domain and turning over a small amount of new territory to Palestinian administrative control. But Binyamin Netanyahu, then the prime minister, suspended the deal after the first of three phases, accusing the Palestinians of doing too little to fight anti-Israeli terrorist groups operating from their territory.
Now, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who defeated Netanyahu in elections this spring, has pledged to resume the Wye River pullbacks in October. The next stage of withdrawals would leave the Palestinians fully or partly in charge of about a third of the West Bank. Barak is balking at the third, and largest, withdrawal mandated by Wye, preferring it be folded into a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians next year.
Although the principle of trading land for peace is broadly accepted in Israel, handing over specific parcels of territory to the Palestinians remains a political hot potato for Barak's government. Completing the withdrawals under Wye would leave about 15 Jewish settlements virtually encircled by Palestinian-controlled land--and, Barak fears, make them tempting targets for terrorists.
Mindful of the sensitivities, the government has revealed no maps detailing the pieces of land to be transferred in future pullbacks. Officials say no maps are likely to be released until days, or perhaps hours, before the next withdrawal, even though Barak has already ordered the military to begin preparations for a redeployment.
In general, October's pullback is expected to take place north and east of the Palestinian city of Ramallah, in areas near the Jewish settlements of Beit El and Ofra and the Palestinian town of Taybeh.
Beyond that, the rest is guesswork, officials say.
Despite the absence of maps, there is comparatively little uncertainty in Ofra and Beit El. They know the next Israeli pullbacks will leave them circumscribed by Palestinian-controlled land, and at least some settlers are starting to come to terms with that.
"Ofra will be surrounded," Yisrael Harel, a veteran leader of the Jewish settlers who lives in Ofra, said matter-of-factly.
But Barak has promised that no matter what Jewish settlements are eventually evacuated in a final peace deal with the Palestinians, Ofra will remain. The uncertainty has left Palestinians on tenterhooks--not least Aranki.
"I've been applying [for a building permit] for 10 years or more," he said. "In Beit El [site of the Israeli civil administration offices], they all know me. . . . I need a place to live by October."
CAPTION: Bisara Aranki stands on the plot he owns outside Taybeh in the West Bank. He has tried and failed repeatedly to win Israeli permission to build a house.