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Israel looks to control West Bank water rights

The war for the control of land on the West Bank and Gaza escalated yesterday with an Israeli proposal to deny Palestinians the right to drill for water and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, confirming that Palestinian land dealers who sell to Israelis will face the death penalty, writes Patrick Cockburn.

Ariel Sharon, the Infrastructure Minister and an opponent of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, is proposing that Israel declare its sovereignty over as much as 50 per cent of the water resources on the West Bank. A likely effect of the proposal is that Israel would pull back from a smaller proportion of the West Bank than is demanded by the Palestinians.

Mr Arafat, in an interview with the daily Yediot Aharanot, said yesterday that Palestinian land agents who sell to Israelis were "a few traitors and we will apply what has been determined by law against them". He said that a Palestinian living in the West Bank towns of Hebron or Nablus, could not buy land in Israel. Two Palestinian land dealers have been killed this month and a third has disappeared.

Controversy is still continuing over the United States government claim, leaked to the Israeli press, that 26 per cent of the houses in Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza are empty, and the expansion of settlements is therefore unnecessary. The Israeli Central Board of Statistics say the true figure is about 12 per cent, which confirms the basic American point.

Israeli political observers note that the secret survey of Jewish settlements and the leaking of the results is the third time in as many weeks that the US has punished Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. Earlier in the month an official in Washington leaked information about an Israeli spy in the US administration. The US is also marginally reducing aid to Israel and giving more to Jordan.