AMID fears of possible intercommunal violence, Israel took small hesitant steps Sunday toward easing one of the longest and strictest curfews ever imposed on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. For the first time since the curfew began almost four weeks ago, several hundred Palestinian workers returned to jobs in Israel.
Human rights and development organizations have complained that the curfew has led to severe hardship in the Israeli-occupied territories, particularly for the families of 120,000 Palestinians who depend on jobs in Israel.
Pressure has also apparently come from a more unlikely quarter - hard-liners Ariel Sharon and Rafael Eitan, ministers of housing and agriculture, respectively. Both were last week said to be pressing for essential Arab workers to be allowed back into Israel: to build the houses urgently needed for new immigrants and to pick flowers and citrus fruit, two key agricultural exports. Some farmers have complained that fruit is spoiling on the trees.
Economists have warned of major losses in both sectors if the ban on Arab workers continues.
However, the return of Palestinians across the ``green line'' that marks the boundary between Israel and the territories it occupied in 1967 has not been universally accepted.
Geula Cohen, the deputy minister of science and energy, said the curfews imposed by the military government should be extended, not relaxed. She said fear of Iraqi Scud missiles - renewed by another attack early Saturday, which injured 26 people - should not be augmented by fear of being attacked by Palestinians.
According to Israel Radio, Ms. Cohen said it was preferable for Arabs to be ``shut away in the territories,'' rather than have them ``murdering Jews.''
Last week saw the first Palestinian attacks on Jews since the start of the war. An Israeli soldier was stabbed at a bus stop in Galilee, while a security guard in East Jerusalem was set upon by ax-wielding Palestinians. Neither attack resulted in serious injury, but they carried echoes of last year's spate of similar attacks, in which eight Israelis died.
With Operation Desert Storm still raging, there are fears that Palestinian support for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein might trigger a similar round of violence.
But Samir Hulaileh, a West Bank economist, says the war makes an explosion of Palestinian violence less likely. ``People now feel they don't have any interest in escalating the intifadah [uprising],'' he says, ``in particular in these days and months of war.''
With the Israeli Cabinet more right-wing than ever, Mr. Hulaileh says, Palestinians are afraid that any wrong move may result in drastic punishment, including deportation.
Announcing the gradual return of Arab workers, Brig. Gen. Freddy Zach, the deputy coordinator for the occupied territories, said there was still a threat of violence from the territories. There were, however, signs of a change in the political climate in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he said.
In a press briefing, General Zach spoke of the first ``embryonic signs of coming back to reality, that they are not going to achieve anything from Saddam Hussein.''
Gazans returning to work on Sunday said they cared more about having enough to eat than about the Iraqi leader.
To prevent possible disturbances, the return of Arab workers to Israel is strictly controlled. Only 1,400 people went back on Sunday, most of them from the Gaza Strip. The return is largely confined to southern rural areas. Urban construction companies, which are heavily dependent on Arab labor, will have to wait.
For now, employers are being instructed to provide transport and to make sure that all workers are back in their homes by nightfall, when curfews will remain in force.
Also excluded are thousands of day laborers who stand at roadside ``slave markets,'' waiting for work. Of those Palestinians who work in Israel, only about a quarter are officially registered.
The Army has said that it will lift the curfew for longer periods, allowing shops, industries, and farms to do business.
A report in the Jerusalem Post quoted Palestinian economists as saying that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are generating only about 12 percent of the pre-curfew income.
There are reports, however, that another Iraqi Scud attack might result in another clampdown on Arab workers. Israel has been alarmed by reports of Palestinians cheering the missiles as they pass overhead.
Hulaileh notes that, while the curfew is being gradually eased, the authorities have already started demanding 1991 taxes in some areas.
``What does it mean if they are easing the curfew and imposing more and more taxes?'' he says, suggesting that the Palestinians will be expected to pay a price for their return to some kind of normal life. ``I think it's very clear that it's not for humanitarian or security reasons.''