West Bank: Has Israel occupation reached a worrisome turning point?
Jerusalem — Israeli military authorities believe a turning point has been reached in their country's 13-year occupation of the Jordan West Bank. The military is worried by a sharp rise in West Bank opposition to Israeli occupation and its policy on new settlements.
An immediate cause of Israeli pessimism was the well-organized Palestinian military attack on Jewish settlers in Hebron over the weekend -- an attack that left six dead and 17 wounded.
The scale, planning, and boldness of the attack prompted the West Bank military governor to describe it as "the worst incident" since the six-day Arab-Israeli war of June, 1967 (when Israel took control of the West Bank).
Israel's military government here, under strong pressure from Cabinet ministers and settler groups for its alleged leniency toward the Arabs, reacted by adopting hard-line policies. These included the summary expulsion to Lebanon without due process of two Arab West Bank mayors and the Muslim religious leader of Hebron.
Other mayors have been threatened with expulsion and forbidden to leave their towns or talk to the press.
But questions already are being raised in the Israeli media as to whether a hard-line policy can reverse the deteriorating situation on the West Bank. And Western diplomatic observers worry that it may torpedo the already reed-slim chance that Palestinian political leaders might at some point participate in the scheme for West Bank-Gaza Strip self- rule now being negotiated by the United States, Egypt, and Israel.
When asked why such an attack on Jewish settlers has not occurred before, a question that has puzzled many here, the West Bank military governor, Brig. Gen. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, replied: "The atmosphere has changed. The crisis is ideological. Today, they are willing and ready to face us."
Experts point to a series of developments that have created the new militancy among West Bank Palestinians:
* The Begin-Sadat-Carter summit conference at Camp David, which focused world attention on the West Bank and created the real prospect of a change in status there, inspired a quantum leap in political coordination and organization.
In October, 1978, a group of West Bank mayors, professionals, journals, and other public figures formed the National Guidance Committee to coordinate West Bank-Gaza Strip opposition tactics to the plan for Palestinian autonomy envisioned in the Camp David accords, which they considered inadequate.
* A vicious cycle of escalating violence developed in recent months between Arab West Bankers and Jewish settlers, fueled by increasing Israeli land seizures for settlements. Starting with stone-throwing at settlers, it escalated to the throwing of a Molotov cocktail and a grenade at Israeli vehicles, to the murder of a settler in Hebron on Jan. 31 of this year, and finally to the Hebron attack.
Press reports from Beirut, Lebanon say the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has decided to focus West Bank terrorist attacks on Jewish settlements.
On the other hand, an increasing number of vigilante actions have been carried out against Palestinians by Israeli settlers, especially by the right-wing Gush Emunim (Faith Bloc) group, which claims that the military does not do enough to protect them.
In recent weeks, settlers smashed more than 150 car windows in one night in the Arab town of Ramallah and distributed leaflets warning the Arab residents there to leave the West Bank and move to Arab countries. The day after the Hebron attack, an Arab taxi driver in Jerusalem was shot by two passengers wearing Israeli Army uniforms who escaped.
While noting that vigilante actions such as those in Ramallah provide a "catalyst" for Palestinian counter-violence, military governor Ben-Eliezer blames much of the violence on the political role of the National Guidance Committee, whose meetings he reportedly will soon ban.
"I can say definitely there is a very close connection between the committee and the results of today [the Hebron attack]," he told the Monitor. The two expelled mayors, Muhammad Milhem of Halhul, a former schoolteacher, and Fahd Kawasmeh of Hebron, an agricultural engineer, were leading members of the committee.
Neither mayor has been accused of direct involvement with the Hebron ambush. However, the military governor insists that inflammatory remarks calling for civil revolt, attributed to them a month ago in a Hebron meeting, provided the climate that encouraged this attack.
That meeting was held to protest an Israeli Cabinet decision to allow Jewish settlements in downtown Hebron. Since the meeting, Gush Emunim members have been demanding that the military government expel the two mayors.
Ironically, the two mayors are considered by Western diplomats here to be the most moderate of the important mayors on the Guidance Committee. Mayor Kawasmeh , who had good relations with both Jordan and the PLO, was considered a moderate by the military government. Mayor Milhem, whom military government considered more radical, was still described by a high Israeli military source as the West Bank political leader with the most potential for national leadership.
Both men were close to American diplomats here and both met frequently with Israeli political groups. Mr. Kawasmeh, who spoke proudly of his meetings in his home with the Israeli dovish Peace Now leadership and with other Israeli political figures, told the Monitor recently that his meetings with Jews would "lead to our sitting together at negotiations."
Mayor Milhem, recently addressing a group of young Israeli Labor Party members in West Jerusalem, sparked loud applause when he spoke of his acceptance of an Israeli state along the pre-1967 war borders.
Western diplomats have expressed concern that with the expulsion of these two mayors the moderating force on the Guidance Committee has been lost. Moreover, they fear that the expulsion of elected Palestinian officials does not set an optimistic precendent for the potential fate of those Palestinians who might conceivably agree to run for the projected Palestinian sefl-governing authority.
Israeli military authorities hope that by cracking down on the new political leadership they may head off a full civil revolt on the West Bank. Hard measures will have the full support of the Israeli Cabinet. But the independent Israeli daily Haarez expressed its reservations about the tough measures.
"All the measures of the 'strong hand,'" it wrote, "will only deepen Arab hatred toward us."