THERE was a time when many of the 70,000 Jews living in settler enclaves in the West Bank felt assured of two things: that both God and their government were solidly behind their efforts to secure their Biblical claim to land occupied by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Of God's commitment most settlers still have little doubt. Of the government's, many have begun to wonder.
Frustrated by the failure of the Israeli Army to put an end to the Palestinian uprising and to provide protection against intensified attacks on settler traffic, the settlers have taken matters into their own hands.
The result has been an unprecedented wave of Arab-Israeli violence in the West Bank which has also brought relations between the Army and the settlers to a crisis.
``If we're not resolute in the notion that our presence in the West Bank is legitimate, then our resolve in responding to violence will be less than 100 percent,'' says Benjamin Greenberger, a law professor whose settlement of Maaleh Adumim, near Jerusalem, erupted in fury last week after a Jewish family of four was seriously injured in a fire-bomb attack.
``It's the Vietnam syndrome all over: We send our boys over there to fight but we don't really let them fight,'' he says.
Last week 30 Jewish settlers went on a 90-minute rampage through the Arab village of Kifl Harith, near Nablus, killing a Palestinian teenager and wounding two other residents. Police have detained six suspects and more arrests are expected soon.
The attack was the most brazen since the start of the Palestinian uprising and the latest in a series of incidents starting a month ago in which bands of settlers have descended on Arab villages, breaking windows, burning cars, and shooting indiscriminately in reprisals against stonings by Arabs.
``The whole situation is moving to a dangerous confrontation between the two communities,'' says an Israeli journalist who reports regularly from the occupied territories.
In a makeshift operations center in the settler enclave of Beit Romano, in Hebron, Avraham Strock culls through a computer print-out of intifadah-related incidents in the Hebron area.
``We started keeping a list 45 days ago and we're already up to 750 incidents,'' mostly stones and occasional petrol-bombs tossed at cars driven by Jewish settlers. Mr. Strock takes off his ``kippa'' to show a head wound inflicted in once such incident.
Galvanized by such statistics and frustrated by the government's unwillingness to use mass deportations and aggressive economic sanctions to quell the uprising, settlers have gone on the offensive.
Regular foot patrols now periodically ply the main streets inside Hebron while auto caravans of heavily armed settlers patrol the main roads linking Hebron and outlying settlements. A phone network alerts settlers in emergencies. In most settlements, organized militias have sprung up complete with arms and communication systems.
Fueled by deepening hatreds, the violence that has resulted has made cities like Hebron virtual no-man's lands.
``It's out of control,'' says the Israeli journalist whose car was stoned by Palestinians several times last week on a routine reporting trip to Hebron.
Jewish settlers on Friday went so far as to attack and beat Israeli peace activists trying to deliver food and medicine to Palestinian children in Gaza Strip refugee camps.
Some settler acts have brought a strong negative reaction from other Israelis.
The Jewish settlement of Ariel on the West Bank Friday dropped plans announced earlier to force Palestinian laborers to wear tags reading ``alien worker.'' Other Israelis and the US State Department had strongly criticized the plan.
According to wire reports, tens of thousands of Israelis, some carrying signs saying ``Thou shalt not kill!'' on Saturday protested settler attacks on Arab communities in the occupied territories.
The stepped-up violence has been a nightmare for the Israeli Army, which, while waging its battle against the uprising, is now obliged to keep settlers from mounting vigilante operations.
``The settlers like to warm things up,'' says a weary reserve soldier as he watches a heavily armed patrol of 15 settlers disappear into the hostile streets of Hebron. ``I guess its their way of forcing the government to come to some kind of conclusion about this place.''
In the escalating war of words, senior military officers say the settlers are making it harder for the Army to quell the uprising and warn bluntly that acts of vengeance against Arab villages could invite attacks by Palestinians directly against Jewish settlements.
Under a new government order, prosecutors, police and soldiers are to take action against settlers who, until now, have been subject to more lenient treatment than Palestinians.