September 18, 2011 - 12:00am

HEBRON, WEST BANK — The Palestinians will be able to make a strong case that they have built the foundations of a nation when they ask the U.N. this week to recognize an independent Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the lands Israel occupied in 1967.

In the West Bank, they've been laying the infrastructure piece by piece, including widely praised systems of public finance and banking and a U.S.-trained security force. They've amassed many of the trappings of independence, from their own internet domain and international dialing code to a flag, an anthem and a national football team.

But their U.N. bid also highlights a simple, bitter reality: They cannot establish an actual state without Israel's blessing, even if the Security Council or a majority of General Assembly members recognize Palestine in pre-1967 borders.

Israel has kept a tight grip on the occupied lands, even while engaging in sporadic talks — frozen since late 2008 — on the terms of Palestinian statehood. It has annexed east Jerusalem, enforces a border blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza and retains ultimate say in the West Bank, despite limited self-rule there by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's government.

Israel remains the final arbiter for some 4 million Palestinians who often can't travel, trade or even build homes without Israeli permission. Ambitious plans can't advance, such as building an international airport in the West Bank or issuing a currency, the Palestine pound, to replace the Israeli shekel.

"It's not going to change anything in my life," Mofid Sharabati, a plumber in the city of Hebron, said Sunday of the bid for U.N. recognition.

His family of seven lives in the Israeli-controlled center of Hebron, where some 500 Jewish settlers live. For the past five months, Israel has blocked Sharabati's plans to enlarge his cramped home even though he says he has a building permit. He was never given a reason, but says he believes it's because of pressure from settlers.

Many Palestinians are losing hope, saying they've tried everything to dislodge Israel's occupation — negotiations, a violent uprising, nonviolent protests.

Abbas's U.N. bid grew from the same desperation.

The Palestinian leader believes there's no point in negotiating with Benjamin Netanyahu because the Israeli leader seems unwilling to go as far as some previous Israeli leaders did — contemplating a state in the pre-1967 borders, with some adjustments and land swaps to allow Israel to keep a few of the largest Jewish settlements closest to the old armistice line.

Netanyahu says he now accepts a two-state solution, but his envisioned borders seem far from what the Palestinians would accept, and he has enraged them with continued construction in Jewish settlements deep inside the West Bank.

"Palestine" won't get full U.N. membership since only the Security Council could bestow such a status and the U.S. has said it would use its veto. As a lesser option, the General Assembly would likely accept Palestine as a nonmember observer state.

West Bank-based Prime Minister Salam Fayyad says his biggest achievement during four years in office has been to foster a shift toward pragmatism by focusing on the groundwork for a state. "There is a sense of self-empowerment, that we can do this," he said earlier this year.

Fayyad has partial control over some 40 percent of the West Bank — islands of territory where the vast majority of its 2.5 million Palestinians live. Israel controls the rest, including key water sources and crossings in and out. It has final say over who can live in the territory and has restricted Palestinian immigration.

That arrangement was created by interim peace deals of the 1990s, a transition phase that has lived far beyond its intended five years. The sense of being boxed-in is pervasive in the West Bank, a territory about twice the size of Luxembourg. Palestinians must carry Israeli-issued ID cards, and anyone caught without one at any of the dozens of Israeli checkpoints within the territory could face detention.

Palestine's desired capital, east Jerusalem, is off-limits to Fayyad's government, a point driven home by a towering wall of cement slabs — part of Israel's barrier of separation from the Palestinians.

Still, there is visible progress.

Construction sites line the main road from the graffiti-covered barrier wall into the interim capital of Ramallah, a metropolitan area of 120,000.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017