West Bank violence stirs debate. Israelis ask if latest flare-up signals start of grass-roots Arab uprising

Israel's first response to increased attacks on Jews in the occupied territories has been to put more troops on the streets here and in other Arab towns. But can the violence that claimed the lives of two Israelis in the past three weeks be controlled simply by beefing up security? Some Israelis, Palestinians, and Western observers think not.

``There is a debate going on among the Israelis about whether or not they've got a `qualitative change in violence' on the West Bank,'' says one Western observer. ``Is what we're seeing now different from flare-ups in the past? My head tells me no, but my instincts say yes.''

In debates in the Israeli Knesset, newspaper articles, and politicians' speeches, concern about the violence is evident. So far, the government's position is that throughout the 17-year occupation, there have been sporadic increases in West Bank violence, but that the overall number of attacks is decreasing.

What some Israelis fear, however, is that a combination of economic and political factors has created an explosive atmosphere on the West Bank that could lead to a general civil uprising.

Last month a flower salesman was died as a result of wounds received when his car was hit by Molotov cocktails as he drove near Qalqiliya. Last week, a reserve soldier on duty in Ramallah was shot at point-blank range. In January and the first part of this month, dozens of cars and buses have been attacked with stones, Molotov cocktails, and grenades.

In the past, the government has responded to any increase in terrorist attacks here by stepping up patrols, making mass arrests, stiffening jail sentences, destroying or sealing homes, and deporting some offenders. More aggressive use of such measures is being called for now by Jewish settlers and some Knesset, or parliament, members. Prime Minister Shimon Peres met in Jerusalem with a delegation of Jewish settlers Sunday night to ensure them that security will be increased.

Soldiers were in evidence both outside and inside Nablus last weekend. They had erected two roadblocks on the highway leading to Nablus from Jerusalem. Another was placed just inside the city and still another was set up outside An Najah University. Only those who could identify themselves as students, staff, and faculty were allowed to enter the campus. The soldiers say the roadblock was to keep inciters off campus. The university says it interfered with its operations.

``This is becoming a typical school day for us,'' says Sa'eb Erakat, spokesman for An Najah. He insists a security crackdown would not end West Bank unrest.

The three most important changes in conditions on the West Bank, Erakat says, have been the disintegration of the Israeli economy, the drying up of the Persian Gulf job market, and Israel's decision to unilaterally withdraw from south Lebanon. Soldiers, he notes, cannot erase the impact of such developments.

The first two changes have caused high unemployment among West Bank Arabs -- particularly among the educated youth -- just when they are being pinched by a spiraling Israeli inflation rate. The third change is being interpreted by Palestinians as proof that Israel can be forced to retreat when faced with determined guerrilla warfare.

The combination of these three factors has, in part, given rise to what some West Bank watchers say may be the start of a grass-roots uprising.

``The situation has changed tremendously in the mid-'80s,'' says Yehuda Litani, an Israeli journalist who reports on Arab-Israeli relations for the prestigious Hebrew-language daily, Haaretz.

``The conflict in the early years of occupation was between the authorities and the Arab population of the West Bank. Now, it is a struggle between Jews and Arabs on the West Bank.'' There are 750,000 Palestinians on the West Bank. An estimated 27,000 to 40,000 Jewish settlers live in some 90 settlements on the West Bank.

The backbone of the struggle, on the Palestinian side, appears to be young people such as those who attend An Najah, and even younger Palestinians who have grown up in the refugee camps.

``This is the generation of occupation,'' says Erakat. ``Those born in 1967 are now 18 years old. They are university students. We brought them up with an identity that stems from the fact that you stay here and fight.''

Erakat says an An Najah study shows as many as 13,000 university graduates are out of work on the West Bank. (Other sources say the figure is closer to 5,800.)

``What you've got,'' says a Western observer, ``is an economic downturn that is biting, beginning to get a real grip on people. And as it continues, there is a shift in Arab perceptions. They believe now that it is going to last a long time, that the choice is between the economic situation getting bad and getting worse. Always before, at least they did okay economically.''

Palestinian youths don't seem to be deterred by the harsh jail sentences imposed for offenses such as stone-throwing. Recently, a 14-year-old was sentenced to five years in prison for throwing stones. The maximum sentence for this offense is 20 years.

``They [young people] look around them, and they see no political initiatives whatsoever,'' says Erakat. ``Don't you think that the West Bank is a big prison for them? The soldiers and settlers are reminding them everyday that they plan to stay. The stones are the young peoples' message that `we don't want you here.' ''

The Palestinians, Erakat says, are aware that the West Bank is not south Lebanon, that they are not Shiite guerrillas, and that the Israelis feel differently about their occupation of the West Bank -- which Israel feels it has a legitimate claim to -- and their occupation of a piece of Lebanon.

Still, Erakat says, ``The major development is the withdrawal from Lebanon. It's affecting everything. The idea that using force may force Israel to withdraw is a concept that now is logical to many Palestinians.''

Erakat and others interviewed rejected recent accusations by Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin that Jordan's King Hussein is allowing the Palestine Liberation Organization, which recently rebased in Amman, Jordan, to step up activities on the West Bank.

Most of the attacks, observers here say, occur spontaneously, without outside direction.

``It is the beginning of a civilian mutiny,'' says Israeli journalist Litani. ``The kids are doing it sporadically, without orders from Amman. They just go out on the street and do it.''

Israel's control, both economically and militarily, over the West Bank is pervasive. Violent demonstrations in the past have always been put down easily.

If it were faced with widespread, persistent unrest, however, Israel would have two choices, those interviewed agree. It could resort to harsher security measures, including deportations, or it could try autonomy, they say.

The Camp David accords signed by Israel and Egypt called for autonomy to be instituted in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but talks on establishing autonomy broke down over the scope of self-government the Israelis would allow the Palestinians.

Abba Eban, chairman of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, called last week for finding a political solution on the West Bank.

``I am under the impression that it is impossible to prove that expulsions, that demolition of houses, have lessened the tension of attacks,'' Eban said in an Israel Radio interview. ``Fundamentally, the solution should be a political one. . . to reach an agreed-upon settlement regarding the status and fate of those territories.''

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