With ominous regularity, Israelis are being murdered by Palestinians. The rising death toll is deepening debate here over the proper response to the problem, and is exposing the differences between the two halves of the government: the Labor Party and Likud bloc.
Over the weekend, the bodies of three more Israelis were found. All three had been shot to death. One, a kibbutznik, was murdered as he rode a horse through the fields of his kibbutz. The other two, a young couple, were found south of Jerusalem. Thirteen Israelis have now been murdered in the occupied territories and in pre-1967 Israel since the beginning of the year, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
The attacks are the latest examples of a sharp increase in terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, according to Zeev Schiff, military affairs editor of Haaretz. He argued in a recent article that a survey of attacks on Israelis by Palestinians over the past 25 years conducted by the Israeli Army shows that armed groups such as the Palestine Liberation Organization have had relatively little success.
News of the latest murders broke here Saturday afternoon, the same day that an Egyptian military policeman apparently went berserk and killed seven vacationing Israelis -- four of them children -- on a Sinai beach.
Initial reports of the Sinai shooting said that the Egyptian was deranged. Both the Egyptian and Israeli governments scrambled to issue statements saying the incident would not further sour relations already strained by Israel's bombing raid last week on the PLO's headquarters in Tunisia.
But the string of violent attacks on Israelis inevitably increases pressure on the government to retaliate when possible and to further crack down on the 1.2 million Palestinians living in Gaza and on the West Bank.
``We have to calm the situation down,'' said an Israeli military spokesman in Tel Aviv.
``You can't go to negotiations in the current atmosphere.''
That thesis -- that the mounting number of attacks precludes the possibility of negotiations -- was rejected by Labor Party officials Sunday, who argued that the increasing violence added new urgency to the search for a peaceful settlement in the Middle East.
The United States also expressed fear about the spiral of violence in the Middle East when it abstained from voting on a UN Security Council resolution Friday that condemned Israel's air raid on PLO headquarters in Tunis.
Israeli officials complained that the US abstention virtually reversed President Reagan's statement last week that the Tunis air strike was a ``legitimate act of self-defense'' by Israel.
``What you are seeing is a condemnation of violence in the Middle East,'' said a US official in Tel Aviv.
``There is fear that the cycle of terror can lead to an impact on the peace process. The United States wants to preserve stability and continue the momentum in the peace process,'' the official said.
Privately, both US and Israeli officials were saying that the Americans moderated their stance on the air raid when it became clear that vetoing the UN resolution would severely damage US relations with the Arab world.ISRAELISRAEL Tunisia is a moderate Arab state that has close relations with the US.
President Habib Bourguiba had expressed deep disappointment at President Reagan's failure to condemn the Israeli attack.
Three days after the Israeli attack on a Tunisian suburb, an anonymous phone caller in Beirut claimed that the kidnappers of US diplomat William Buckley had executed him in retaliation for the Israeli raid. That claim, although still unconfirmed, convinced the State Department that American diplomats throughout the region might be at risk if the US maintained its initial support of Israel's raid, sources said.
But the US abstention at the UN served again to illustrate the fundamental differences in the Israeli Cabinet.
Nimrod Novik, Prime Minister Shimon Peres' political adviser, said in an interview on an Israeli Army radio program that ``substantively the US position has apparently not changed.''
Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry, which is headed by Yitzhak Shamir of the Likud, described the US action as a ``slap in the face.'' While Labor Party members were quoted on Israel radio as calling for a renewed striving for peace as the most effective security measure Israel can take, rightist members were calling for Israel's ambassador to Egypt to be recalled and for Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli defense minister, to be put in charge of security.
``The extremists are playing now a very major role,'' lamented leftist parliament member Yossi Sarid Sunday. ``Each time a disaster occurs, the influence of the extremists is more dominant.''