THE mid-day West Bank scene is tranquility itself - Biblical hills, donkeys straddled by sacks of produce, strolling villagers in Arab headdress. There are no burning tires, no roadblocks, no crowds of stone-throwing youth. The bang thus comes with stunning surprise - out of nowhere, on a seemingly empty street, from behind a parked car or a wall, a bottle not seen until it is caroming with unexpected force up off the damaged windshield. ``You've got to slow down when you come to a built-up area, not speed up to get through it quickly,'' advises an Israeli settler. ``They often throw from the front and the force with which the rock will hit you is a function of the speed of the car as well as the speed of the rock.'' Even physics relates to the Palestinian problem.
Israelis in the West Bank have been receiving such flying telegrams daily for 19 months, time enough to ponder the intifadah's relevance to physics, demographics, political science, theology, and other subjects on the curriculum of the West Bank Open University which they share with the Palestinians.
During a visit this month to several settlements, a change in mood was evident. The bold confidence that marked the first decade of settlement and the shock that followed the uprising appear to have given way to grim determination. The settlers see themselves as clearly as ever leading Israel towards its destiny but the old certitudes are mitigated now by an awareness that history can zig as well as zag. They have even thought the unthinkable - that a territorial settlement would leave the settlements as enclaves in a Palestinian state. In private conversations many have expressed a readiness to stay if that would occur.
Though the settler movement has attracted more than its share of fanatics and crazies, most of the settlers seem humanly and morally attractive - idealists willing to undergo danger and discomfort for a cause. In this respect they represent the best in the nation. Their opponents in Israel believe these ideals mean endless war.
The settlers have adapted to the daily gauntlet they run on the roads but the fuse, even among moderates, has grown short. Until vigilante actions of the past three months, the settlers had behaved with surprising restraint, and even today vigilantism is still relatively limited. However, talk of peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, once a prominent feature in the scenarios painted by settlers, is heard less often now than warnings of mass expulsion of Arabs if the intifadah is not put down. The kind of rage bottled up by the Palestinians for 20 years under Israeli occupation is building up now among the settlers as the Palestinians do their turn upon the boards.
In almost every family, one or more persons have been injured by rocks. One resident has had 30-40 flat tires from nails scattered on the roads by Arab villagers. Settlers routinely travel with two spare tires and a gun. Sometimes residents wait for another car so that they can travel in convoy. They go out less frequently at night and do not secure safety belts to avoid being trapped in the car if it is hit by a bomb.
Despite all this, there is surprisingly little siege mentality apparent. The settlements themselves are tranquil enclaves. What concerns the settlers far more than the rocks is fear that the uprising may lead to political concessions. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's peace initiative is seen as a dangerous bowing to pressure which can only encourage continued Palestinian unrest aimed at achieving further concessions.
The settlers and many Israelis see the PLO peace offensive as deceptive. ``The Palestinians don't want a country,'' says a Tekoa artisan, ``they want our country.''
The euphoria has passed for the settlers but not their convictions. They have led the nation into the Promised Land - the Biblical heartland that is the West Bank - and will not easily be ousted by either the Palestinians or the Israeli government.