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Shaken West Bank settlers debate 'Jewish terrorism' issue

By Ned TemkoStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 10, 1984

Kiryat Arba, Israeli-occupied West Bank

The young rabbi runs his fingers through his rich black beard and says he still can't believe it: A neighbor, ''a man I know,'' is among those arrested for allegedly trying to blow up five Arab-owned buses in nearby Jerusalem.

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Kiryat Arba - for more than a decade defiantly proud to be at the cutting edge of Israel's drive to settle the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River - is in communal shock.

Yet the open question, especially for Jewish and Arab opponents of the West Bank settlement campaign, is whether the shock will lead to a reinvigorated national debate on Israel's policy in the territory captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Many of this settlement's roughly 5,000 Jews are profoundly shaken by the recent arrest of more than 20 Jews suspected of terrorism - among them, some Kiryat Arba residents.

Leaks in the Israeli press say the detained militants are to be charged not only in connection with the foiled bus attack but also with a series of fatally successful strikes against West Bank Arabs over a period of some four years.

These include car-bomb attacks in 1980 in which two Palestinian mayors on the West Bank were maimed and a 1983 shooting at an Islamic teachers college in Hebron, the sprawling Arab town that lies immediately below Kiryat Arba. Four people were killed in that assault.

Some Kiryat Arba residents, like an Orthodox Jewish father of nine named Chaim Zilber, argue that such strikes are justified by earlier Arab attacks on West Bank settlers. Only such action, he says, can convince Arabs that ''they must live'' with us. ''This is in the Arabs' mentality.''

A 14-year-old high-school student agrees. If the planned bus attack, he says, was intended to respond to Arab violence and further Jews' right to live anywhere in biblical Israel, then it was justified.

Yet many in Kiryat Arba seem to disagree. US-born Michael Berenson, a teacher , says: ''There are ways of doing things, but not blowing up buses or shooting at Arabs in a teacher's seminary.''

To glimpse the look of anguish on the face of one New York-born resident here is to believe him when he says, in a near whisper: ''I'm shocked. I'm sorry, almost ashamed. I have to admit this. For years I've been saying: 'People in Kiryat Arba aren't the way they (the opponents of pro-settlement militants) say.'''

For years, he and many other Kiryat Arba residents helped power a group called Gush Emunim - the Israeli political arena's most vocal proponent of expanded settlement on the territory captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

But now, he says, ''I'm waiting to see what Gush's policies are. . . . If its policies were expressed under those buses, then, no. No, I don't support Gush Emunim!''

He says he is heartened in talking to friends and neighbors. A ''silent majority'' shares his revulsion. ''And this is the first time that when somebody (from Kiryat Arba) was arrested, you didn't have everybody going on the barricades and saying we have to defend them. . . against these foul canards being spread by the opposition.''

But Michael Berenson adds a widely heard postscript: ''It is a splinter group. . . that took the law into its own hands.'' He says, ''This wouldn't have happened if the government had acted a little more severely'' against anti-settler violence.

A housewife pushing a baby carriage nearby agrees: ''I don't think it is justified. But maybe one has to think why they did it. . .''