EL-KHADR, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- From a hillside overlooking his fields, Ahmad Nabhan was unhappily watching part of the contest between Palestinians and Israel for control of the West Bank.
The local competition was between a donkey-drawn plow preparing ground for a vineyard and a bulldozer smoothing a wide path for a new highway, all on land cultivated by Mr. Nabhan's family for as long as anyone in the village can remember.
It is a contest Mr. Nabhan knows he has lost. Israeli authorities already have taken most of the property needed here and at other sites for the highway, a $30 million project designed to let Jewish settlers bypass Palestinian villages and shorten their commute to Jerusalem.
"They are going to take everything piece by piece," Mr. Nabhan )) complained, watching the bulldozer spread another mound of gravel and sand. "You come here in the morning to work in your field, you go away, and when you come back they are digging a road."
Mr. Nabhan was exaggerating the pace and methods of Israel's policy of land confiscation, but not the effects.
Israel, accelerating practices of the last two decades, is claiming for itself large tracts of the West Bank and in effect carrying out a piecemeal annexation that will be difficult to reverse.
Israel's official policy toward the West Bank and Gaza Strip remains that the permanent status of those areas is something to be determined in negotiations with Arab states and Palestinians. But even though policy is unchanged, Israel's land policies are creating a new set of facts that could influence Israel's bargaining position in any talks.
In the last two months in the West Bank, Israeli authorities have relied on a variety of little-known regulations to keep control of roughly 17,000 acres. Israel has designated the land for settlements, new roads or unspecified military purposes. In some cases, land appears to have been taken to punish individuals or communities suspected of resisting the military government.
Israel now asserts an absolute legal right to about 925,000 acres of the West Bank's 1.37 million acres -- 68 percent of the total, according to figures compiled by independent think tanks and human rights groups. The other 32 percent of the land remains in the hands of the area's 900,000 Palestinians.
Settlements, new roads and other projects are among the "facts" used to support the government's claims. When confiscated land is used to expand Jewish settlements, each family moving into a trailer or buying a home immediately has an economic stake in staying.
In much the same way, every citizen, whatever his politics, has been given a costly stake in the West Bank, if only because the investments will be too large to abandon. By spending scarce public funds there, the government commits itself as if the decision for Israel to remain already had been made.
Projects on an enormous scale are under way. If all goes according to plan, the Ministry of Housing, led by Ariel Sharon, will subsidize enough construction in the West Bank over the next five years to increase the number of settlers by 50 percent to 150,000.
A more ambitious long-term program is outlined in ministry documents leaked to the Israeli press. At least preliminary plans exist for adding 10,000 housing units to a settlement called Ofarim, where 14 families live today; 1,700 to the hilltop outpost called Alei Zahva, 2,800 to Bruchin and 2,700 to Ariel.
"Sometimes you do things before you know what will be in the future," said Avinoam Avnon, a planner in the ministry's department of public works, the agency designing the road passing el-Khadr. "If the government decides to build the road, it's a political matter, and we carry it out."
The highway is the largest road project in the West Bank: 9 miles of two-lane roadway. Plus two tunnels, the first ever in Israel or the territories. Plus a 1,000-foot-long bridge, the region's longest.
When completed the road will connect Jerusalem to most of the settlements between Bethlehem and Hebron. Engineers have the first section of roughly 2 miles under way and say they will need three to four years to finish the work.
Settlers have been counting on the project. A new road always was promised, a road that would let settlers detour around the Dehaishe refugee camp and shorten the drive to Jerusalem.
"I remember walking with a tour guide in 1975 and being told, 'Here's where the highway is going to go,' " said Robert Lang, a resident of the settlement of Efrat and its former manager. "There was always the idea to build a proper road through the area."
A proper road was considered an essential ingredient in the recipe for growth. Efrat, population 2,000, has prepared plans to expand to 15,000 and wanted a road that bypassed the squalor and danger of Dehaishe to
give the settlement the final touches of an American-style suburb.