With the Middle East peace process in deep freeze, the Israeli Government has announced measures that further tighten its hold on Palestinian lives and territory in the occupied West Bank.
In its most radical move, the Israeli Government decreed a month ago that non-Israeli citizens must apply for written permission to enter, leave, work and live in Arab areas trapped between Israel proper and Israel's new security wall.
Then last weekend the Ministry of Defense published for the first time its planned route for the entire 400-odd kilometer section of fence along the western edge of the West Bank.
The ministry's map shows the fence making a number of deep intrusions into the West Bank to loop around Jewish settlements, leaving about 70,000 Palestinians and up to 10 per cent of West Bank territory on the "Israeli" side.
Under the new regulations, Palestinians living in this "seam zone" will require Israel's written permission to live in their own homes and to cross into the West Bank or Israel.
It further emerged last week that rather than freezing construction in its older West Bank settlements and dismantling new ones, as required by the internationally sponsored "road map" for peace, the Government has authorized construction of 323 new homes in two established settlements. On Monday it gave its retrospective blessing to eight "unofficial" hilltop "outposts" built by far-right religious Jews.
The Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, also went on television to confirm that he planned to extend the security fence right round the West Bank, carving off all the Jordan Valley and isolating what is left of the West Bank from its only Arab neighbor, Jordan.
The revelations have met with a predictable storm of condemnation from the Palestinians, internationally, from Israeli human rights groups and even - in more muted tones - from the US.
The United Nations humanitarian office for the occupied territories said that the new permit system "turns a right to reside in one's own home and with one's family into a revocable privilege allotted on a case by case basis" and raised concerns that "these areas would be effectively annexed to Israel".
Dror Etkes, an activist with the Israeli human rights group Peace Now, said he believed the new developments were part of a long term campaign by Israeli hawks to "transfer" Palestinians out of the Biblical land of Israel by making their lives unbearable.
The liberal newspaper Ha'aretz editorialized that "the recent string of decisions reflects the true policy of the Sharon Government" , displaying "profound contempt" for the road map launched in June.
The Government denies that the fence has any hidden political agenda. A Ministry of Defense spokeswoman said: "As far as Israel is concerned the fence is a security fence and the route of the fence is decided according to where we perceive we can provide best protection to Israeli citizens, Jews and Arabs alike."
But to the surprise of many, some of the attacks on government policy were echoed this week by the chief-of-staff of the Israeli Defense Force, Lieutenant-General Moshe Yaalon. In what he thought was an off-the-record briefing, he said he believed that in the absence of a political process the Government's harsh security policies were breeding despair in the occupied territories, and that this would ultimately lead to more terrorism.
According to the journalists, the "senior military official" who briefed them on Tuesday also complained that the army had wanted a shorter, cheaper fence, easier to defend and running close to the Green Line, but that Mr Sharon had overruled its advice to please the settlers.
The newspaper Yedioth Ahronot said the general was concerned Mr Sharon's plans to seize the Jordan Valley would increase Palestinian hopelessness and Israel's international isolation.
It remains to be seen whether General Yaalon's views will have any more influence over the right wing coalition than the UN, Israeli human rights groups, the US and most Israeli citizens who tell opinion pollsters they would give up the settlements and the West Bank in return for peace.
Copyright © 2003. The Sydney Morning Herald