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Israeli justice on West Bank -- equal for Arabs and Jews?

By Trudy RubinSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 1983

Hebron, Israeli-occupied West Bank

When Jewish settlers flooded into the Arab marketplace of Hebron in the wake of last week's slaying of Jewish religious student Aharon Gross, Israeli military forces standing by the market made a conscious decision to allow them to burn down Arab property.

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This, say Israeli military sources, was to avoid a possible violent confrontation in which furious armed Jewish settlers might have shot at Jewish soldiers had the settlers been thwarted in their revenge.

Against this backdrop, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens has promised that he intends to ''enforce law and order without discrimination or bias'' against Jews and Arabs on the West Bank.

But the Army's experience in Hebron graphically illustrates some of the political and physical difficulties Mr. Arens will have in keeping his promise.

Israeli officials make a sharp distinction between Jewish and Arab violence. Referring to the burning of the Hebron Arab vegetable market, Israeli Cabinet Secretary Dan Meridor drew a distinction between ''those who murdered intentionally (Arabs) and those who afterward caused damage to property (Jews).'' Defense Minister Arens postulated, ''The initiation of the cycle of violence generally or always comes from the Arab part of the population.''

Mr. Arens said, ''The people who have been murdered in the area have all been Jews.''

However, some Israeli analysts dispute this claim. Dedi Tzuker, an activist in the Israeli Citizens' Rights Party, which champions civil rights of both Jews and Arabs, listed five Arabs shot to death by settlers on the West Bank since March 1982. Two were 14 years old. One boy was shot to death by settlers when a group of Arab youths threw stones at a settler bus.

Mr. Tzuker said no settler had stood trial for the shootings. He said he estimated that 400 Arab car windows have been smashed by Jewish settlers on the West Bank - often in revenge for stone-throwing incidents - during this period.

Moreover, some Israelis are worried that increased Jewish settlement in the heart of the tense city of Hebron may spur the cycle of violence. Israel's opposition Labor Party, which refused settlers permission to live in downtown Hebron during its tenure, officially declared this week that Jewish settlement in Hebron would only increase hatred and eventually ''exact a fearful price.''

The defense minister has stressed that he is ''totally opposed to people taking the law into their own hands . . . whether Arabs or Jews.'' He said, ''We'll do all we can to prevent this kind of activity.'' Israeli observers say that Mr. Arens is acutely aware of the damage to Israel's image at home and abroad when the West Bank is portrayed as the Wild West.

However, Mr. Arens confronts both practical and political problems in enforcing the law on the West Bank. For one thing, the question of who holds responsibility for law and order on the West Bank, which has not been formally annexed by Israel but is often treated as if it were, is extremely hazy.

The Israeli military deals with security problems, and the police with ''crime.'' But in reality the police are dependent on the military, and charges have been aired here that Israeli politicians frequently intervene with the military to thwart police investigations of settlers. And police sources say that Jewish settlers are not cooperative when it comes to investigating suspected Jewish vigilantes.

Such allegations were included in the controversial Carp Committee Report, a Justice Ministry investigation of how well Israeli authorities dealt with Jewish vigilantism on the West Bank. Israeli Deputy Attorney General Yehudit Carp resigned from chairmanship of the committee after the report lay untouched for a year.

Defense Minister Arens has met twice with Israel's justice and interior ministers during the last six weeks with the aim of producing a working paper for the government on how to deal with Jewish vigilantism. But he has refused to release to the public the Carp report - which details scores of unpunished Jewish vigilante actions over the last two years - until the working paper is ready.