The Israeli government's new "hard-hand" policy to combat increased unrest in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, a policy that includes the use of collective punishment, has hit an unanticipated obstacle -- Israel's democratic institutions.
Recently the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the government to show cause why it should not allow the return of two elected Arab West Bank mayors and a religious figure deported after the murder of six Israelis in Herbon on May 2. The three Arabs were not accused of the crime, and the court indicated they had been denied their legal right to appeal the expulsion order.
Criticism by the Israeli and foreign press, as well as the expectation that the High Court would rule against the government, led the Israeli military government of the West Bank to permit the return home of two families who had been exiled internally to a barren, deserted desert refugee camp because a son in each family allegedly had thrown stones at an Israeli military vehicle.
The Jerusalem Post, editorializing about one of the cases, said: "Had this taken place in Kabul [Afghanistan] . . . the young culprits would have been summarily executed. . . . and the entire families would have been lucky to be merely exiled. . . .
"But Israel is not the Soviet Union, and the West Bank is not Afghanistan, despite allegations to the contrary by a number of countries. . . ."
This week five opposition members of the Knesset (none of them from the Labor Party mainstream) instigated a debate on "collective and neighborhood punishment on the West Bank." And the prestigious Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a nonpartisan group of lawyers and professionals, this week called a press conference "because of the increasing number of rash measures" it felt Israeli authorities were taking in the territories.
This included collective punishment of families or whole towns, blowing up of houses, and deportation, which the association spokesman said often violate the rule of law and civil rights.
Nonetheless, the hard-hand policy is still on. Some government leaders, notably Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, want far tougher measures.
The government is worried by the seemingly uncontrollable wave of stone- and firebomb-throwing by Palestinian youths in recent weeks, which makes West Bank roads unsafe for Israeli military vehicles and civilian Israeli settler traffic. They are further disturbed by the degree of organization apparent in the Palestinian attack in Hebron on May 2, which presages a more serious local Palestinian threat in the future. Nearly a month later, the culprits remain uncaught.
Israeli security forces in the West Bank believe there is increasing adult organization behind youthful stone throwers. If arresting individual youths cannot cure the phenomenon, then they believe that measures must be taken against parents, or the community from which the youths come.
A high Israeli military source recently explained to foreign journalists that collective punishment was necessary in patriarchal Arab communities in order to force parents and the community to suppress further attacks by their children.
But punitive measures have been covered fully in the Israeli press, often causing embarrassment to the government.
* Sixteen shops in four buildings fronting the scene of the Hebron killings were demolished, with almost all their contents, immediately after the attack. The owner belongs to a family that saved about 100 Jews during the 1929 Arab massacre of Jews in Hebron.
* Detailed press reports allege that during the 16-day almost-total curfew on over 50,000 residents of Herbon, Israeli soldiers and settlers from nearby Kiryat Arab smashed more than 150 vehicles and windows in several houses, house-to-house searches were conducted roughly, and Arab householders' foodstuffs destroyed in several instances.
* Israel television gave extensive coverage to the squalid circumstances of the two families banished to the desert refugee camp. The Israeli press reported curfews and all-night outdoor roundups and interrogation imposed on all men in West Bank refugee camps from which stones have been tossed by youths at passing military cars.
* Stories of individual military wrongdoing have emerged, notably the testimony given to Uri Avneri, leftist member of the Knesset (parliament) and newspaper publisher, by a group of young soldiers who served for one week on the West Bank just after the Hebron killings.
* The youths allege that they were ordered by a senior military government officer, who said, "Every person you catch outside his house [during the curfew] . . . beat him on all parts of this body except for the head. Have no pity, break all their bones."
They say they were told to bring all the family out, if a small child was caught, and to beat the father in front of the family. Deputy Minister of Defense Mordechai zipori told Mr. Averni during the Knesset debate on collective punishment that these allegations would be examined speedily by competent military authorities. He also denied in the debate that Israeli security forces imposed collective punishment.
Some members of the government criticize Israel television for its coverage of the West Bank, and one general called its West Bank correspondents "terrorists." Limits now have been set on TV interviews with Palestine Liberation Organization supporters, which include most West Bank leaders, but coverage remains extensive.
Ironically, many Israeli newspaper reports of the West Bank are translated by the government press office, thus aiding foreign correspondents to cover this scene. And three Arab papers published in eastern Jerusalem, whose reporters admit that despite censorship they have more freedom than under the previous Jordanian regime, often translate articles from the Israeli press to inform West Bankers of events.
When the military government attempted to stop distribution of two of the papers, it received last-minute counter- manding orders, reportedly from ex-Defense Minister Ezer Weizman.
The Israeli High Court has provided West Bankers with a democratic means of thwarting the hard-hand policy.
After the court castigated the government for denying the deported mayors due process, some here believe it will rule the deportation was illegal. This does not mean it will demand the government allow the three men to return, however.