IT may be a triumph of hope over experience, but a visit to Israel and the occupied territories in early June suggested that something is cooking that might ultimately be peace.
Not that all is rosy. In Kiryat Arba, one of the first Jewish settlements outside Hebron, we watched target practice in the cellar of the community center. The instructor was a "wild Irishman" with a ruddy complexion, blue eyes, and a blonde mane and beard. Born in Chicago, a United States Marine in Vietnam, an orthodox Jew who calls himself David, he sees his role as clearing greater Israel of Arabs. If the Israeli government gives Arabs autonomy in any part of Judea and Samaria, he says, "We'll send co mmandos in to shoot them, burn buildings, and poison wells." Extremist nonsense, say most Jews; David says there are many like him in Israel.
The Arab side has its fanatics and people poisoned by an aimless life under harsh occupation. At 4 a.m. on April 19, helicopters with floodlights hovered over an apartment block in the Gaza strip. Soldiers, looking for four wanted men, rounded up the 140 occupants and drove them away. When there was no sign of the suspects, the soldiers bombarded the block with anti-tank rockets and captured one suspect. The dwellings and everything in them were blasted and burned. One prominent member of the governing L abor Party told us, "We must establish a balance of fear. People must be more afraid of us than of HAMAS [the Ismalic resistance movement] and the terrorists. We must make sure that they give no refuge; otherwise terrorists would simply fade into the population and disappear."
No trust whatsoever exists on either side. Confidence-building measures have been futile so far. In the ninth round of peace negotiations last month, Israel offered a freely elected Palestinian self-government authority full charge of services, such as health and education, that intimately affect daily life; all, of course, under Israeli security control. The Palestinian team scoffed at this as tricky cosmetics, an offer of partial autonomy designed to stop there and block the way to full Palestinian ind ependence.
All Palestinians and many Israelis condemn the Draconian measures Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has ordered against Palestinian resistance. He was elected on a platform of Israeli security and the exchange of land for peace, but more Palestinians, including children, have been killed in his first nine months than in the last nine of the right-wing Likud government. Reinforced Israeli troops in the occupied territories use live ammunition more freely. After a number of fatal assaults by Palestinians inside
Israel, Mr. Rabin ordered the territories closed. Only a fraction of the more than 120,000 Arabs who earned their living in Israel each day now have special permission to cross the line. The effect has been disastrous: higher unemployment, deeper poverty, and desperation.
Where in this bleak picture is there any sign that things might improve? The evidence is tentative and complex. Perhaps the most important single factor is Israel's paradoxical prime minister. Rabin's heavy hand in the West Bank and Gaza reassures Israel that he will not gamble the territories away. But his willingness to give up an as-yet unspecified amount of land, despite the anguished protest of the settlers, contrasts sharply with his stand-pat right-wing predecessors. Rabin is not an ideologue, sec ular or religious. He apparently believes that the status quo is unsustainable and not correctable by force.
Rabin is carefully cultivating authentic, moderate Palestinian leaders. The offer, still to be fleshed out, of free, direct, general election of the executive authority, under international observation, is new. Negotiation with Palestinians openly linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) also is new. Rabin is a leader determined to see things through. He and the Palestinians know that if he fails to get peace with security, Likud will win the next election.
Sound and fury are part of the scene. Palestinians are as obsessed with nationhood as Israelis are with security. Extremists on both sides feed on each other. But the fact that Judaism is the common denominator of the variegated Jewish community does not mean that fanatics have free rein. Nor do the Muslim Palestinians on the whole support the gunmen, while applauding opposition to the hated occupation.
People on both sides are weary of violence and fear. Observers note a seemingly growing Palestinian disposition to test Israel's offer of autonomy, however limited. They want to show the Israelis, the outside world, and themselves what they can do; and build on it to independence.
Yasser Arafat and the PLO remain genuine symbols of Palestinian nationalism. Mr. Arafat still calls the shots. But he is a leader who watches his followers. In his distant Tunis headquarters, cut off from most of the money he received from the Gulf, he is peripheral and less significant. If Israel gives Palestinians a chance to shine, it would brighten the prospects of peace.