A wave of religiously motivated unrest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has heightened Israeli concern about growing Islamic activism in the occupied terrorities. Israeli security officials are anxious that religious activism is producing a new brand of resistance to Israeli occupation. The methods of resistance, such as the use of car bombs, go far beyond those seen in the territories since the occupation began in 1967, the officials say.
Security officials used to believe that Islamic activists were more religious than nationalistic, and thus less prone to anti-Israeli activity. Now they believe that religious extremists are going to greater lengths in what they see as a holy war against the Jewish state.
In addition, there has been a significant rise in the involvement of Islamic Jihad in anti-Israeli attacks in the West Bank, says Israel's top West Bank commander, Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna. And there are signs that Islamic Jihad is cooperating with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Israeli analysts say.
The current cycle of violence began last week after four Palestinian gunmen belonging to the Islamic Jihad movement in Gaza were killed in a shootout with Israeli security men. The deaths set off five days of protests, in which demonstrators barricaded roads with burning tires and hurled stones at Israeli troops, who shot and wounded several Palestinians. The unrest apparently was organized largely by Islamic Jihad activists.
Muslim religious sentiments were further inflamed by confrontations Sunday on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, near the Al Aqsa mosque, one of Islam's holiest shrines. Police used tear gas against some 2,000 Moslem protesters, who hurled stones in an attempt to block a group of ultranationalist Israeli Jews who wanted to visit the area, which is the site of the ancient Israelite temples.
This week the tension spilled over into the West Bank. A Palestinian woman was killed and five persons wounded Monday when Israeli troops opened fire at rock-throwing demonstrators in Ramallah. The protesters had marched through the town chanting slogans condemning the police action on the Temple Mount and vowing to protect the holy places of Islam. Students at the neighboring Bir Zeit University held a similar religious demonstration and a mock funeral for the dead woman yesterday.
The car bomb case was heard in a West Bank military court several weeks ago. A member of the Islamic Jihad was charged with an unprecedented plot to set off a car bomb at the government complex in Jerusalem. The bomb was to be detonated by a woman suicide driver. Such attacks are unheard of in Israel and its occupied areas.
The Islamic Jihad is particularly strong in the Gaza Strip. Islamic fundamentalism is a growing popular phenomenon there, encouraged by contacts with fundamentalist groups in Egypt, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Islamic Jihad gunmen killed in last week's shootout in Gaza were found in possession of a small arsenal in their cars, and apparently were on their way to stage a spectacular anti-Israeli attack. The pistols found in the vehicles were the same caliber as those used in recent fatal shootings in Gaza of a senior Israeli officer and an Israeli civilian.
Israeli analysts cite evidence of cooperation between members of the Islamic Jihad and the mainstream Al-Fatah group in the PLO. According to charge sheets submitted to military courts, both the attempted car bombing of the Jerusalem government complex and a grenade attack in the city last year on Army recruits and their families during a swearing-in ceremony were carried out by Islamic Jihad members with logistic support from Fatah's headquarters in Amman, Jordan.
Analysts say there could be a growing reservoir of public support for Muslim religious activism, as more Palestinians in the occupied areas turn to Islam. A rise in religious sentiment is most evident at Palestinian universities, where Islamic student groups rival pro-PLO factions in campus support. PLO chief Yassar Arafat has acknowledged the Islamic upsurge, and in recent years made increasing use of Islamic themes in his public appeals, the analysts say.
Palestinian and Israeli observers agree that a transformation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into a holy war in the minds of many Palestinians could bring a more sinister twist to the already bitter struggle between the two peoples.
``When it turns into a religious conflict, people lose their minds,'' said a Ramallah doctor after the killing in his town this week. ``It becomes a whole new ball game.''