ON April 6, a group of 16 young Israeli hikers left the Jewish settlement of Elon Moreh, which lies a short distance northeast of Nablus, the major Arab city in the northern part of the West Bank. They hiked toward a nearby Arab village named Beita. According to one of the Israeli survivors of the affair, as reported by ABC correspondent Barrie Dunsmore, the purpose of the hike was ``to show them that we are the owners of the country.''
The hikers were accompanied on their hike by two armed settler guards both with reputations as aggressive and militant Zionists. One, Roman Aldubi, was banned last year from Nablus for six months for involvement in a shooting incident there by Gen. Amran Mitzna, Israeli commander on the West Bank. It is said to have been the first time ever that Israeli Army authority of this type was used against an Israeli citizen.
As the group of hikers approached Beita, there was shooting. An Arab youth was killed. Villagers rushed out. There was a general melee in which there was more shooting. A second Arab was killed, and also 15-year-old Tirza Porat, one of the Israeli hikers.
The Israeli Army investigation found that only two firearms were involved: an M-16 rifle used by Aldubi and a Uzi submachine gun in the hands of the other settler guard. It showed that there were no firearms among the Arabs. All shots came from the M-16 used by Aldubi.
Israeli settlers immediately assumed that the girl had been stoned to death by the Arabs. Settlers swarmed around Beita. Immediate reprisals were taken against the village. Six Arab houses were bulldozed. Arab olive groves and almond orchards were destroyed.
The Israeli Army chief of staff, Gen. Dan Shomron, was on the scene the first day. He conducted an immediate investigation. His report, issued April 8, showed that Tirza Porat had died from an M-16 bullet from the rifle that had been carried by Aldubi.
Following the Army report, the settlers from Elon Moreh and other Israeli radicals still demanded that the entire Arab village of Beita be destroyed and that General Shomron be dismissed.
Eight more houses in Beita were demolished even after the Israeli Army reported that the killing of the Israeli girl was not by Arab stones but by a presumably accidental shot from the Israeli guard's M-16. On April 19, six of Beita's Arabs were deported for their involvement in the incident.
We are long since familiar with fanatic fundamentalism among Muslims. It is Muslim fundamentalism that holds a score of Western hostages somewhere in Lebanon. It is Muslim fundamentalism that fuels the policies of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. It is Muslim fundamentalism that lies behind the sea war in the Gulf, where a United States frigate was nearly sunk several days ago.
There is also Zionist fundamentalism that pushes the government of Israel and makes it extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, for that government to come to mutually acceptable terms with its Arab neighbor.
Not all of the 70,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied territories are fanatics. Many are there simply because housing is cheaper than in Israel itself. But others like Aldubi are fundamentalists, often followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League.
The affair has increased the amount of talk in Israel about finding some way to ``transfer'' much of the Arab population out of the occupied territories. US Secretary of State George Shultz was in Israel at the time of the Beita affair. He returned there afterward. It was a poor time to try to talk to Israelis about withdrawal.
There are more than 1.5 million Arabs in the occupied territories, plus some 700,000 in Israel itself. They today make up nearly two-thirds of the total population of Israel plus the occupied territories and are increasing faster than the Jews. By the year 2000, they are expected to outnumber the Jews.
In view of the tensions, the stone-throwing, and the reaction of many Israelis to the affair at Beita, one must not expect Mr. Shultz to resolve the problems of the Middle East tomorrow.