United States officials worry that Israel has reached a dangerous turning point in dealings with Arabs in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. After 14 straight days of rioting that have left at least 19 dead, the continuing violence in Israel is obviously something far more serious than previous instances of rock-throwing by Palestinian youths. The riots, and incidents of Israeli harshness toward rioters, point out that Israel has no real idea of what to do with the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank, some US observers say.
``There are a lot of troubled people in the US government,'' says a congressional staff member key to American policy in the Middle East.
Reagan administration statements about the riots have been restrained and careful not to place blame for starting the cycle of violence on either side. But photos of Israeli soldiers kicking demonstrators and the now-famous TV clip of an Israeli security man shooting after a fleeing crowd have clearly had a sour effect on US attitudes.
US officials won't go on the record saying they have asked the Israeli government to tone down their policing effort. But State Department spokesman Charles Redman said, ``We have always counseled avoiding the use of lethal means in circumstances such as this.''
The main perpetrators of the violence appear to be a new breed of Palestinian youth, age 20 and under, that know no life but that under Israeli occupation and have been hardened by life in areas where they are not treated as full citizens. They burst into rioting ``spontaneously,'' the congressional staff aide says, and not because they were lit by Syria, Iran, or any other influence or event from outside their own experience.
Until now, Israel has basically taken a short-term view toward peace in Gaza and the West Bank, say some US experts. Unrest was dealt with tactically, as a pure police law-and-order problem.
But unless the Palestinian youths feel some hope of political progress, they will remain tinder, easily provoked into rioting again.
``Over time the Israeli government must sort out where it really wants to go in the Middle East peace process and where it wants to go with Gaza and the West Bank,'' says Robert Hunter, a Mideast analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In New York, the United Nations Security Council was scheduled to vote yesterday on a resolution denouncing the Israeli military reaction to the riots and calling on the secretary-general to recommend new ways of ensuring safety of Palestinians in the occupied territories. By yesterday afternoon, however, a vote had not yet been taken. US diplomats have indicated that they may well veto the resolution.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said yesterday that his country's actions in the violence were being distorted. Israel would not ``surrender to considerations about our image which are products of the media,'' he said.
He called for the US to veto the UN resolution, saying that if it passed, it would only encourage extremists.