'Poison' controversy is latest symptom of distrust on the West Bank
Arraba, Israeli-occupied West Bank
The heavy metal gates at the entrance to the girls' secondary school in this pastoral Palestinian village have been bolted shut. Through a peephole one can see the two-story, L-shaped concrete building, trimmed in red, where something happened March 21 that sent 66 schoolgirls home or to hospital. Since then over 700 more schoolgirls have been taken to hospitals in a variety of West Bank towns and villages.Skip to next paragraph
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The emotional controversy which has erupted over the girls' condition is itself a clear symptom of the sharply deteriorating relationship and glaring lack of trust between Israeli Jews and West Bank Arabs.
The Palestinians are convinced that Jewish settlers are trying to poison or sterilize their daughters to spark a large-scale Arab exodus from the West Bank so that Israel can annex the land. Palestine Liberation Organization leaders, meeting in Amman, have called for a United Nations Security Council meeting on the ''poisoning.''
Israeli health officials attribute the problem to a ''mass phenomenon'' - meaning a wave of hysteria - but concede that the panic reaction might have been triggered by an ''environmental irritant'' in Arraba. Israeli civil authorities on the West Bank say the girls are being manipulated by Palestinian activists interested in discrediting Israel.
''The only poison you can point to for sure is in the political atmosphere,'' said a foreign observer outside a Hebron hospital.
A series of events over recent weeks and months have produced a pervasive atmosphere of distrust throughout the West Bank. West Bankers' fears are fanned by statements like that of Deputy Speaker of the Knesset (parliament) Meir Cohen , a member of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Herut Party, who said in mid-March that Israel had made a fatal mistake when it did not drive 200,000 to 300,000 Arabs of Judea and Samaria (biblical names for the West Bank) across the river Jordan in the 1967 war.
''Things would have been simpler today, no Palestine problem, no stones, no demonstrators,'' he said. ''We could have brought in 100,000 settlers and there would have been no trouble.''
Although Mr. Cohen did not speak for the government, he was not chastised by its leaders, bolstering West Bank suspicions that this is government policy. Open expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank has been advocated by the Kach Movement of American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, active on the West Bank, and by some circles of the leading West Bank settlers' organization, Gush Emunim.
Reflecting the impact of such statements, a Palestinian doctor pulled aside visitors to the Hebron Hospital and whispered, ''We know the Begin government prefers to remove the Arabs. We expect bad measures to frighten us but the next step may be worse.''
West Bank tensions have also been stirred by a major Israeli settlement drive now aimed at placing new Jewish towns near populated Arab areas including the West Bank's largest and most politically active town of Nablus. There have been increasing numbers of incidents between settlers and Arabs, including several shootings of Arabs by armed settlers and a wave of stone throwing by Arab youths at Israeli cars, making travel dangerous on major roads.
In the first three months of 1983 there were more than 700 incidents of rioting or attack on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leaving 61 Israelis and six local residents injured and one Israeli woman killed by a rock. This prompted new Defense Minister Moshe Arens to ask his military subordinates to find new, effective, and morally acceptable ways of ensuring West Bank tranquillity.