The resignation of an Israeli deputy attorney general, Yehudit Karp, from her position as head of a committee investigating vigilantism by Jewish settlers against West Bank Arabs has stirred a controversy in Israeli government circles and the media.
It has focused attention on a subject which Jewish civil rights advocates in Israel believe to be a serious and growing problem but which has received little official attention.
Ms. Karp reportedly quit her job because no action had been taken for the past year on a report and recommendations made by her Justice Ministry committee. The report, which has not been made public, is said to list all recorded Jewish vigilante acts against West Bank Arabs during the last two years for which nobody has been arrested or charged, and to call for stricter enforcement of the law against Jewish vigilantism.
The report also underlines serious problems in maintaining order in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, problems which are likely to multiply if occupation becomes virtually permanent.
Israeli internal security forces are currently investigating a new secret Jewish vigilante group calling itself the Fist of Defense (Egrof Magen), believed to contain about a dozen members who aim at revenging increasing numbers of stone-throwing attacks by West Bank Arabs on Israeli civilians and soldiers. The group has claimed responsibility for slashing tires on dozens of Arab-owned cars in the Hebron area; breaking windows of 42 cars in the town of Beit Jala; attacking four Arab cars near Hebron; and planting a bomb outside a Hebron mosque.
Such activity reflects Jewish settlers' belief that the military is providing insufficient protection against increasing attacks - mostly with stones - on Jews in the occupied territories. Two weeks ago a Jewish shopper was shot dead in the Gaza city market, following a similar killing three months ago.
The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported recently that the number of Arab attacks in the West Bank rose 69 percent in the 12 months from April 1982 to March 1983 over the previous 12-month period, and Arab disturbances rose by 79 percent over the same period.
Arab stone-throwing incidents are regularly followed by stiff fines and jail sentences against arrested culprits as well as collective punishment - including near total curfews of as long as one month - on villages or refugee camps from which the assailants come. Several youths convicted recently of the only West Bank stoning death - that of a young Israeli woman four months ago - received 11 to 13 years in jail.
However, perpetrators of Jewish acts of revenge on the West Bank have rarely been caught or charged, and the few such cases have received light sentences.
The Karp commission reportedly raised the issue of who is responsible for law enforcement in the occupied areas which have not been formally annexed to Israel but for many purposes are treated as if they had been. This unclear situation leaves the hazy question of who is responsible for bringing vigilantes to justice. The police on the West Bank, theoretically responsible to the Israeli Justice or Interior Ministries, are in reality totally dependent on the military government of the territories, according to the report.
Israeli press accounts say the report charges that Israeli politicians, including members of Parliament, frequently intervene with the military to call off police investigations into the behavior of Jewish settlers. A senior police source told The Jerusalem Post, ''Somebody calls up and says, 'This boy has a good Jewish heart. You shouldn't bother him,' and then the military government steps back, taking us with it.'' Another police officer spoke of ''two systems of justice, one for Arabs and one for Jews.''
In order to arrest and convict Jewish vigilantes police also face the problem of breaking through hostility of West Bank Jewish settlers, who are said by the police to be unwilling to cooperate on such cases.
Local West Bank Arab courts operating under Jordanian law have also had trouble exercising their jurisdiction over Jews. When a Nablus district court recently ordered a Jewish construction firm to halt work on a new settlement because Arab villagers claimed their land had never been sold, the firm ignored the order. Israeli border police were called in, after Arab villagers forcibly stopped the earth-moving equipment, and a local Arab was killed in the ensuing clash.
There are some indications that new Defense Minister Moshe Arens may take a harder line on vigilantism than did his predecessor Ariel Sharon. Mr. Arens has already given direct orders, changing some of former Chief-of-Staff Rafael Eitan's directives on collective punishment.