Hebron, Israeli-occupied West Bank — The family of Jewish settlers was out for a Sabbath picnic along the two-lane West Bank road. Father and children filed out of the van to purchase soft drinks at an Arab-run roadside stand while the mother spread out food on a blanket by the road.
There was only one jarring note to the pastoral scene: the M-16 rifle slung by a strap over the father's shoulder.
The debate over guns for Jewish civilians on the West Bank - who should have them and what limits should exist on their use - has become increasingly controversial following the knife slaying of a Jewish seminary student, Aharon Gross, and the shooting murders of three Arab students in Hebron this month.
There are no suspects yet in the killing by masked gunmen of the three Palestinian university students and the wounding of more than 30 during an outdoor class break at Hebron's Islamic University. Hebron Arabs are convinced that the killers were Jews out to take revenge for the Gross murder by killing Arab religious students. Hebron Jewish settlers say the killers were probably Palestinians involved in intra-Arab political squabbling.
The Israeli news media have reported that senior investigators of all security services, while making public attempts at evenhandedness, are focusing their investigation heavily on Jewish settlers and extremists. The killers are described as ''well trained and experienced.'' Israeli sources say this could indicate military training.
For some months before the Hebron killings, settlers have been arguing that the regulation under which they can use their guns should be loosened. Israeli critics of the settlers have said they should be disarmed. But on the day following the attack on Hebron University, Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Levy rejected suggestions that settlers should give up their weapons or that the current regulation governing when they may be used should be loosened.
General Levy insisted that the settlers need the weapons for their personal protection and ''a decision not to give them arms would be an extreme one.'' He says that the people who have abused the situation by opening fire illegally should be punished.
Civilian weapons are almost as ubiquitous on the West Bank as the chunky white rock which dots the landscape. Almost all adult Jewish settlers, including women, have the right to carry ''personal weapons,'' so long as they have had minimal weapon training. The guns are to be used for protection against potential Arab attack. They are usually Israeli-made snub-nosed Uzi machine guns , US-made M-16s, or occasionally Russian-made Kalashnikov automatic rifles collected since 1967 in Israel's wars with the Arabs.
With tensions between 800,000 local Palestinian Arabs and about 30,000 Jewish settlers flaring repeatedly over a variety of incidents and nationalist protests , settlers are advised not to shop in Arab towns or travel on West Bank roads without a weapon. The main road hazard is stone throwing by Arab schoolchildren at passing vehicles which bear yellow Israeli license plates rather than the blue plates issued to West Bank Arabs.
If a settler has not served in the Army or is not a member of special religious seminaries which combine military and religious training, he is given a short course on weapons use along with target practice. Many settlers also do their annual reserve duty in regional defense units whose arms are kept on the settlement.
According to military sources, each settlement has a controlled system of gun distribution. However, guns sometimes fall into the hands of those who are not authorized to have them. One such case was that of Yisrael Fuchs, a 19-year-old American citizen who lived in an unofficial settlement next to the Jewish suburb Kiryat Arba near Hebron. Mr. Fuchs was recently convicted of shooting at an Arab car with a gun for which he had no permit. The American teen-ager was a member of the extreme right-wing Kach movement which advocates expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank.
West Bank Arabs are forbidden to possess weapons. One exception has been the Israeli-backed and funded Village Leagues whose leaders were issued guns as protection against assassination threats. But following clashes between armed league members and unarmed villagers, most of these weapons have been recalled and the leagues have fallen out of favor with Israeli authorities on the West Bank.
In a few instances, Arabs are known to have acquired illegal weapons by smuggling them from Lebanon or the Sinai (despite security measures), by dealing through Jewish criminals, or by stealing. Aharon Gross's Uzi submachine gun was seized by his murderers. But the difficulties of illegal acquisition of weapons by Arabs are illustrated by the paucity of shooting attacks by Arabs against Jews.