Shaken West Bank settlers debate 'Jewish terrorism' issue

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.

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. . .''

Almost everyone here says it is wrong to tar with the brush of ''Jewish terrorism'' other settlers who argue the right - indeed the duty - of Jews to live among the nearly 1 million Arab Palestinians of the West Bank.

In the past few days, opponents of Gush Emunim's vision of the West Bank have had a field day on Israeli editorial pages. The gist of such comment has been that, however small the number of suspected terrorists, their activities are the natural outgrowth of Gush Emunim's drive to settle in densely populated Arab areas of biblical Israel.

''The people who attempted to blow up the Arab buses. . . are not bad apples in the cart,'' said one commentary in the Jerusalem Post, ''but the tastiest, freshest apples of them all.'' The writer noted that, unlike ''lunatic'' extremists accused of earlier anti-Arab attacks, at least some of the latest suspects come from good, mainstream families in settlements like Kiryat Arba. ''The cart, itself, is rotten,'' the writer concludes.

Naomi Chazan, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, remarks similarly: ''I would say the roots (of Jewish violence against Arabs) are in the ideology of Gush Emunim.'' This ideology ''makes it impossible to build a communality of interests with the Arab population'' and leaves two alternatives: expelling the Arabs, or ''fighting'' them.

A stormy Jerusalem meeting of Gush Emunim activists Tuesday was said by press reports to have touched on this issue - and on the need to rethink ''education'' policies within the Gush.

But public statements from Gush officials and from pro-settlement militants in Israel's right-wing government strongly deny the contention that the recent anti-Arab terrorism grew out of settlement ideology. Instead, the attacks are termed an ''aberration.''

Ms. Chazan feels that the fact Israel's national elections are approaching in July will help preclude any serious policy rethinking for the West Bank. The government and other settlement advocates, she notes, ''are consciously disassociating themselves'' from the Jewish terror suspects, and one effect will be to preempt any profound policy debate.

The more left-leaning Labor Party opposition has been ''astoundingly silent'' on the recent arrests, she notes. One reason: Labor hopes the controversy will tar the incumbent government regardless. Another, says Ms. Chazan, is that Labor is far more interested in highlighting issues like the war in Lebanon and Israel's frazzled economy.

''They're afraid the bulk of the population is not dovish on the question'' of the future of the West Bank.

Yet in Kiryat Arba, even some of the more forceful proponents of settlement do think some soul-searching is both inevitable and good.

Says the ''ashamed'' US-born immigrant: ''I think out of this terrible thing . . . the rank and file is going to be more aware.

Maybe it's just a foolish hope. But that's what I'm hoping will happen.''

Teacher Michael Berenson notes that if the bus bombs had exploded in central Jerusalem, ''Jews would have been killed,'' too.

He adds: ''I think this (attempted attack) is a reason for all of us to think , to the right or to the left, (orthodox) religious or nonreligious. I think it is time to think, really, what does a Jewish state mean, and what do we have to do to keep it a Jewish state.''

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