Jerusalem — An Israeli-supported figure on the occupied West Bank has been ambushed by armed attackers, the sharpest reply yet to Israel's bid to foster a more pliant Palestinian leadership and to cement control over the disputed territory.
For days, sporadic demonstrations, rock throwing, and (unsuccessful) Molotov cocktail assaults have plagued the area in reply to a new Israeli strategy announced by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.
The idea, as Mr. Sharon described it at a recent news conference, is to be tougher than ever with the more radical elements on the West Bank but to ease restrictions on the ''peaceful'' population. The great majority of the West Bank falls into the second category, in Mr. Sharon's view.
The Sharon policy, greeted with skepticism by many diplomats here, now seems increasingly to be coming unstuck.
A major problem, local political analysts maintain, is that while active foes of Israeli occupation on the West Bank indeed seem a minority, many more West Bankers are passive opponents of occupation. Active supporters of Israeli policy are precious few.
''Most West Bankers simply do their best to keep quiet. . . . Very few are going to go out on a limb for the Israelis, no matter what Sharon does,'' one Western analyst commented.
At the same time, the latest West Bank unrest would seem to make it unlikely that Israel will oblige Egypt's bid for a genuine loosening of political restrictions in the area as a means of unblocking US-mediated talks on Palestinian autonomy.
Indeed, one planned aspect of Mr. Sharon's plan to ease the effect of occupation on ''peaceful'' Palestinians has already gone by the wayside, at least for now. The Israelis were theoretically going to forswear collective punishment, such as imposition of 24-hour curfews, the entry of troops into school grounds, and the dynamiting of West Bank homes belonging to relatives of those involved in anti-Israeli violence. Some West Bank families sink virtually their entire savings into building a home.
Since the current unrest began some three weeks ago, such measures have been used repeatedly, however. Israeli troops cleared and then blew up several homes in a village near Bethlehem Nov. 16. The houses belonged to relatives of youths allegedly involved in a Molotov cocktail assault. Traditionally, the punishment has been reserved for more serious offenses.
Earlier in November, Israeli troops entered a Palestinian university whose students had been protesting Israeli policy on the West Bank. The authorities have since closed the school until early next year.
The target of the Nov. 17 ambush, Yusuf Khatib, was seriously wounded; his son, Kazem, was killed in the attack.
(Reuters reports that as Israeli forces rushed out to hunt the attackers, a military court was passing life sentences on four Palestinians convicted of killing six Jewish settlers 18 months ago in the West Bank city of Hebron. Two of the three Israeli judges demanded the death penalty, but the presiding judge vetoed this because under Israeli law unanimity is required to pass a death sentence.)
Mr. Khatib heads one of the three West Bank ''rural councils'' set up by Israel in clear hopes of countering outspokenly anti-Israeli figures who have come to dominate the territory's politics.
Town mayors elected in balloting permitted by Israel in 1976 have uniformly declared support for the Israelis' archrival, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
The Israelis have been seeking to strengthen the new rural councils by funneling funds and other benefits through them to Palestinian farmers, while trying, with indifferent results so far, to shut off funds provided jointly by neighboring Jordan and by the PLO.
Israel has found only a few, relatively minor West Bank Palestinians to head rural councils.
The initial, private reaction of prominent Palestinians on the West Bank to the Nov. 17 assault was to term it a victory for the pro-PLO line - since Israel had said it would protect West Bankers who joined the rural councils. At least some council participants had already been under Israeli military protection. Israeli radio said Nov. 17 that Khatib had received earlier death threats and had told the Israelis of them.
A number of village Palestinians will no doubt accept what benefits the Israeli-backed councils can provide - as some Palestinians in the also-occupied Gaza Strip have buried initial reluctance and moved into new housing provided by Israel.
But the wide assumption here, particularly in light of the current unrest, is that those who accept council benefits will prove of little political help to Israel. (In Gaza, inhabitants of the new housing still condemn Israel's occupation apparatus when interviewed by visiting reporters. Otherwise, they simply keep quiet.)
Mr. Sharon, meanwhile, seems convinced that his West Bank strategy will work in time. At his recent news conference, he argued that the policy's success or failure could not be judged in a matter of mere weeks.
One Sharon ''carrot'' that has survived the recent unrest is his determination to allow back some moderate Palestinians expelled for political reasons earlier in the 14-year-old Israeli occupation.
The first of these, Nadim Zaru, a former mayor of the West Bank town of Ramallah, returned earlier in November. On Nov. 16, the authorities announced that Anton Atallah - an elderly former Arab magistrate in Jerusalem and one-time Jordanian Cabinet minister - would also be allowed to return.
But neither of these figures seems likely to take an active role - much less an actively pro-Israeli one - on the West Bank. They are both pro-Jordanian. Jordan's King Hussein has rejected Israel's vision of Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and says the Palestinians must be given a full-fledged state.
Meanwhile, the latest West Bank unrest has served to give much greater weight to the ''sticks'' of Israeli occupation.
This, in turn, seems sure to make it harder than ever for the Israelis to sell their avowed liberalization of West Bank policy to their US and Egyptian partners at the autonomy talks.