'Poison' controversy is latest symptom of distrust on the West Bank

The heavy metal gates at the entrance to the girls' secondary school in this pastoral Palestinian village have been bolted shut. Through a peephole one can see the two-story, L-shaped concrete building, trimmed in red, where something happened March 21 that sent 66 schoolgirls home or to hospital. Since then over 700 more schoolgirls have been taken to hospitals in a variety of West Bank towns and villages.

The emotional controversy which has erupted over the girls' condition is itself a clear symptom of the sharply deteriorating relationship and glaring lack of trust between Israeli Jews and West Bank Arabs.

The Palestinians are convinced that Jewish settlers are trying to poison or sterilize their daughters to spark a large-scale Arab exodus from the West Bank so that Israel can annex the land. Palestine Liberation Organization leaders, meeting in Amman, have called for a United Nations Security Council meeting on the ''poisoning.''

Israeli health officials attribute the problem to a ''mass phenomenon'' - meaning a wave of hysteria - but concede that the panic reaction might have been triggered by an ''environmental irritant'' in Arraba. Israeli civil authorities on the West Bank say the girls are being manipulated by Palestinian activists interested in discrediting Israel.

''The only poison you can point to for sure is in the political atmosphere,'' said a foreign observer outside a Hebron hospital.

A series of events over recent weeks and months have produced a pervasive atmosphere of distrust throughout the West Bank. West Bankers' fears are fanned by statements like that of Deputy Speaker of the Knesset (parliament) Meir Cohen , a member of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Herut Party, who said in mid-March that Israel had made a fatal mistake when it did not drive 200,000 to 300,000 Arabs of Judea and Samaria (biblical names for the West Bank) across the river Jordan in the 1967 war.

''Things would have been simpler today, no Palestine problem, no stones, no demonstrators,'' he said. ''We could have brought in 100,000 settlers and there would have been no trouble.''

Although Mr. Cohen did not speak for the government, he was not chastised by its leaders, bolstering West Bank suspicions that this is government policy. Open expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank has been advocated by the Kach Movement of American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, active on the West Bank, and by some circles of the leading West Bank settlers' organization, Gush Emunim.

Reflecting the impact of such statements, a Palestinian doctor pulled aside visitors to the Hebron Hospital and whispered, ''We know the Begin government prefers to remove the Arabs. We expect bad measures to frighten us but the next step may be worse.''

West Bank tensions have also been stirred by a major Israeli settlement drive now aimed at placing new Jewish towns near populated Arab areas including the West Bank's largest and most politically active town of Nablus. There have been increasing numbers of incidents between settlers and Arabs, including several shootings of Arabs by armed settlers and a wave of stone throwing by Arab youths at Israeli cars, making travel dangerous on major roads.

In the first three months of 1983 there were more than 700 incidents of rioting or attack on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leaving 61 Israelis and six local residents injured and one Israeli woman killed by a rock. This prompted new Defense Minister Moshe Arens to ask his military subordinates to find new, effective, and morally acceptable ways of ensuring West Bank tranquillity.

To cope, Israeli authorities have closed at least 20 Arab schools - many for long periods - as well as periodically shutting down one or the other of the West Bank's four universities. They have made almost 1,000 arrests of young stone throwers, sentenced some 300 people to jail terms of three to nine months, and imposed heavy fines. Nine refugee camps - scenes of frequent stone-throwing incidents - have been under total curfew at various times.

Jalazun camp near Nablus was under curfew for 24 straight days, meaning large families were cooped up in crowded homes with limited food, sanitation, and medical assistance, and no school or work. Brief curfews have also been imposed to keep order in towns with outbreaks of the schoolgirl sickness.

Such an atmosphere further complicates the already bizarre case of the schoolgirls and makes it likely that, whatever the final findings may be, at least one side will disbelieve them.According to Professor Baruch Modan, Director General of the Israeli health ministry there is ''no clinical evidence'' of toxic poisoning in the girls' cases, nor have laboratory or environmental examinations produced any positive result. Dr. Modan quoted at length from reports in the British medical journal and the journal of the American Medical Association to support his argument that similar ''epidemics'' of mass hysteria have been recorded in the US, England, and Kenya.

Dr. Modan told reporters that a visiting representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dr. Francisco Alter, who just completed two days on the West Bank, had agreed that there was ''no evidence of a poisonous agent and that his feeling was that this was a mass phenonomen with no organic basis.'' This could not be confirmed by the ICRC.

''We have nothing to hide,'' added Dr. Modan, citing the arrival at his invitation of a team of investigators from the Atlanta, Georgia, Center for Disease Control who started work here on Monday, and the imminent arrival of another team from the World Health Organization.

In Arraba, however, a town of 5,000 amid rich crop land and olive groves only 500 yards from an Israeli Army camp, the residents are convinced that Israel was behind the incidents.

''I believe the Israelis did it,'' said 17-year-old Tama Dor, who lay beside her 15-year-old sister, Bahyia, in the high-ceilinged main room of their traditional Arab home as they recuperated amid eight younger siblings. ''They want to limit the Palestinian population by damaging the girls,'' she added.

Did the girls imagine their illness? ''Nonsense,'' replied Bahyia sharply.

Hussein Obeid, the London-trained Palestinian director of public health services for the West Bank, believes the Arraba case was different and the symptoms more severe than the subsequent outbreaks.

Dr. Obeid traveled to Arraba the day after the outbreak along with an Israeli public health nurse, Tsila Aker. Near the school he smelled, ''a strong, irritating smell,'' and felt ''a burning sensation.'' Mrs. Aker, he said, also smelled and was affected by the unknown substance. Mrs. Aker said she could not confirm or deny this without permission from the Israeli civil administration authorities on the West Bank.

Dr. Obeid disputes the ''mass hysteria'' thesis. But he admits he cannot be sure what the substance was that irritated him in Arraba. An Israeli mobile lab that arrived the next day - after heavy rains - found nothing. A suspicious yellow powder was found to be pollen.

At the same time, a group of men sitting outside the Arraba coffeehouse admitted they could not imagine why someone would pick Arraba for such an attack. The town has not had recent problems with settlers or Israeli land expropriations, although masked Arab youths did jostle some young schoolboys in the town elementary school who refused to go out and demonstrate on the main road during last week's unrest.

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