The worst wave of violence in recent years in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip has raised difficult questions about Israel's security policy in those areas. Israeli policymakers responsible for the occupied territories are fielding a barrage of criticism from left-wing politicians and the press. Both are demanding that the officials account for the cause of the violence and come up with better ways to handle it.
Yesterday Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian youth on the West Bank, bringing to four the number of Palestinians killed in five days of unabated violence. Security forces clamped a curfew on the West Bank towns of Ramallah and El Bireh and closed down until January the old campus of Bir Zeit University, the site of last week's fatal incidents.
The controversy began last Thursday after Israeli troops shot to death two Palestinian students during a demonstration at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank. A day later, Israeli troops killed a teen-age demonstrator at the Balata refugee camp near Nablus. The killings have set off three consecutive days of demonstrations throughout the occupied areas. Israeli officials in charge of the areas concede that the violence is serious, but say it is not a cause for any change in policy - either by imposing heavy punishments on rioters or by easing measures against prominent activists.
Gen. Ephraim Sneh, head of the West Bank civil administration, called the recent events an ``aberration'' that ran against the overall trend of a reduction in disturbances.
Shmuel Goren, coordinator of Israeli activities in the occupied territories, said he believed ``the majority of the population avoids such activities.''
Other Israeli officials say they believe the violence in the territories will soon die down. General Sneh says the eruption of simultaneous demonstrations throughout the occupied territories shows a concerted effort by Palestine Liberation Organization activists to exploit anger over the recent killings to stir up anti-Israeli demonstrations.
Prof. Amnon Cohen, a former adviser on Arab affairs to the military government, says he believes the demonstrations are an attempt by the PLO to assert its presence as a force to be reckoned with in the occupied territories, following recent Israeli and Jordanian moves to increase Jordanian influence in the area at the expense of the PLO.
Israeli officials have been harder put to come up with answers to criticism of their handling of the unrest. Both Israeli and Palestinian critics of the government's security policy have questioned whether the Army should have responded as harshly as it did to the demonstrations last week - opening fire on the protesters with live ammunition.
Army officials argue that the troops acted with restraint, shooting only at the legs of the demonstrators after firing warning shots in the air and shooting tear-gas cannisters and rubber bullets.
Palestinian observers say the wave of disturbances is a response to Israel's military provocations in the occupied territories, or its so-called ``I insist policy.''
``Beside the anger agaist the occupation, the unrest is also a direct response to the Isreali Army, which can raise or lower the Palestinian tone by its behavior. If the Army is provocative, tempers will flare. This is the cause of the escalation, which later snowballs,'' said Ziad Ali Abu Zayyad, a Palestinian newspaper editor.
Mr. Abu Zayyad and other Palestinians say frustrations have been aggravated by the anti-Arab violence in Jerusalem which was ineffectively handled by Israeli police. Arab property was vandalized and Arabs attacked following the stabbing death last month of an Israeli seminary student in Jerusalem's Old City.
Palestinians also say the protests reflect a surge of support for PLO forces, who have won recent victories against the Shiite Amal militia in Lebanon. Palestinians say they have been specifically encouraged by the unification of PLO factions in the recent fighting in Lebanon.
``There is a feeling that we can do something, that we are not so helpless after all,'' said Faisal Husseini, a leading pro-PLO activist.