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Published: Wed, April 10, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.

Though neighbors have challenged its right to exist, Israel seems assured of its sovereignty. The more pressing question of statehood refers to the Palestinian homeland. Three million Palestinians currently live in "autonomous regions" within the state of Israel, namely the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority has at least partial control over these areas, but Palestinians lack full self-determination. "Final status" negotiations over Palestinian statehood has never taken place, leaving this issue open for discussion.
For most of its history, Israel perceived the creation of a Palestine state as a direct threat to its security (Arabs have declared war on Israel three times since its founding in 1947). Though former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak broke with tradition to support a state of Palestine, current leader Ariel Sharon remains opposed to the idea. But pressure from the Bush administration -- which favors a two-state solution to the Mideast conflict -- might compel Israel to recognize Palestine. But borders are important. Israel will insist on a map that preserves its security, its settlements, its control of Jerusalem and its access to water -- most of which comes from the West Bank.
Though Arabs rejected the original U.N. plan for Palestinian statehood, Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat is closer than ever before to achieving full independence. Because of the 1964 Palestine Liberation Organization charter, which called for Israel's destruction, efforts to create a Palestinian state have been interpreted as a direct threat to Israeli security. Now disavowing these claims, Palestinian leaders insist that its state should include only the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 war -- Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. But Palestinians themselves are divided over their aims and methods. And so long as militants mount their campaign of terror, Israel will be more inclined to wipe out Palestinian infrastructure rather than support statehood.
In the Holy Land, exodus follows genesis. Israel was founded by refugees returning to an ancestral home. In the process, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled, or were ousted, from the new state. Today, millions of Palestinians living outside Israel (often in refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries) claim land or property inside the pre-1948 borders of the Jewish state. A United Nations resolution recognizes this right-of-return, but Israeli law does not. The question of how to resolve this claim remains a chief obstacle to Mideast peace.
Aside from being a logistical nightmare, granting right-of-return would dilute the Jewish population and threaten Israel's identity as a Jewish state. Though saying their refusal is "non-negotiable," Israeli leaders have floated the idea of repatriating a symbolic number of refugees and compensating the rest.
Many Palestinians have maintained old deeds to property as family heirlooms, passing down the dream of returning from generation to generation. The issue goes deeper than individual property claims for the Palestinians, who feel a collective right to their ancestral homeland.
Jerusalem is sacred ground for three major religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- making discussion about control over the city particularly testy. The United Nations originally called for Jerusalem to be an international city shared by Israelis and Palestinians. Failed Arab efforts to defeat Israel in 1948 and again in 1967 resulted in Israeli control over the city, including Arab East Jerusalem. Jews dominate Jerusalem's western half, while Arabs predominate the eastern section, also known as Old Jerusalem. The 2000 Camp David talks included direct negotiations over Jerusalem, but compromise proved elusive.
Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, though most countries instead recognize Tel Aviv. Israelis consider the whole of Jerusalem -- even the Arab quarter -- to be the symbolic heart of Zionism. Israeli access to holy sites within the city are non-negotiable.
Jerusalem is considered Islam's third-holiest city and the idealized future capital of the Palestinian state. Palestinian historical and religious claims on parts of the city are deeply rooted. But Yasser Arafat has suggested that East Jerusalem could serve as the compromise capital.
Close to 400,000 Israelis live in Gaza, the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem. These illegal outposts developed after Israel seized Arab land in the 1967 war. Originally seen as a bargaining chip for peace and a security buffer for Israel, they've become an aggravating factor in the Palestinian intefadah, and often the scene of violence. A U.S. commission led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell recently recommended that Israel freeze all settlement activity.
For Israelis, settlements have helped both absorb Jewish refugees (from the Soviet Union, for example) and provided a first line of defense against the Palestinians. Indeed, Israel now has authority over 60 percent of West Bank territory. For religious conservatives, the outposts also represent a step toward reclaiming Israel's Biblical lands.
Settlements are a sore point. These Jewish oases in the middle of Arab territory, developed illegally and tacitly condoned by the United States, are seen as an instrument of ongoing occupation and a threat to Palestinian Authority leadership. The settlement question becomes even more crucial within the framework of a proposed Palestinian state.
Source: Christian Science Monitor

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