THE government of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has come under attack from both left- and right-wing critics following the Dec. 7 shooting deaths of three Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip.
The shootings, which were claimed by Palestinian activists of the Muslim fundamentalist movement Hamas, coincide with the fifth anniversary of the West Bank uprising, or intifadah.
Right-wing Israelis such as Gen. Ariel Sharon and Tsomet Party leader Rafael Eitan immediately issued calls for an Army crackdown in Gaza - including house-to-house operations to round up cells of Palestinian resistance and, in the words of Mr. Eitan, to "kill them one by one."
Leaders of Israel's right-wing Likud Party say Mr. Rabin, who is also defense minister, has been too restrained toward Palestinian street activists in his eagerness to advance the Middle East peace talks. "We see Army jeeps moving through a sea of stones and Molotov cocktails and not responding," Likud parliamentarian Uzi Landau charged in a Dec. 8 debate in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.
Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists say the Army's continued rights violations in Gaza and the West Bank have contributed to the recent upswing in extremism.
"The government has made piecemeal gestures, but it hasn't adopted a new policy that would put human rights in the territories in accordance with international law," says Yuval Ginbar, author of a report by the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem. The report, released Dec. 8, reviews conditions in the territories since the installation of the Rabin government July 13.
Mr. Ginbar says prison conditions have improved somewhat, but there are continuing reports of detainees being tortured during interrogation. And the number of Palestinians killed by soldiers since Aug. 1 continues to average about 10 per month.
"If, after five years of intifadah, the Israeli Army can't disperse a stone-throwing crowd without resorting to lethal shooting, we are in trouble," Ginbar says.
The Army says the deaths are related to a sharp rise in the use of firearms by Palestinians, particularly in Gaza. In 1992 there were 344 Palestinian shooting incidents, compared with 262 incidents in 1991 and only 38 in 1988, the intifadah's first year.
At least 223 Palestinian "collaborators" also have been killed by other Palestinians so far this year - twice the number of Palestinians killed by the Army.
On an official visit to Italy, Rabin said a peace settlement is the only solution, but he added that "as long as there is no political solution, our fight with the terror organizations will continue."
Rabin appealed to Italian and European Community leaders to increase economic aid to the territories, saying that Gaza's desperate economic situation is contributing to unrest among the 660,000 Palestinians living there.
Over the past five months, Rabin's government had restricted the entry of young Gazans to jobs in Israel in response to attacks on Israelis. The Gaza Center for Rights and Law, a Palestinian human rights organization, estimates that no more than 30,000 Gazans are working in Israel today - half the number who worked in Israel prior to the outbreak of the Gulf war in January 1991.
"We knew that this would add to the personal security of Israeli residents, but it increases the tension and personal crisis of the residents of Gaza," Rabin said on Israel Television.
Tighter entry procedures creating long morning traffic jams at Gaza checkpoints have led to recent disturbances by frustrated Palestinian workers who must begin traveling to jobs inside Israel at 3 a.m. Following the Dec. 7 incident, most of Gaza was under curfew, and no workers traveled to jobs in Israel.
"Gaza is in a special situation, because the economic situation, the poverty, and I would say the absence of hope are far more striking and dramatic than in the West Bank," said Labor Party Knesset member Yossi Ginosaur, a former director of the General Security Services in the occupied territories.