WHEN a Jewish settler was shot dead in the West Bank town of Ramallah yesterday morning, the curfew that the Israeli Army slapped on the area was not ordered only to ease its search for the killers. The authorities also intended to protect Palestinians from expected retribution.
Fearing more rampages by settlers, who have beaten up Palestinians, burned cars, and stoned houses to avenge earlier settler deaths, Ramallah residents stocked up on food before the curfew was imposed and prepared for what one predicted would be ``a difficult night.''
As the prospect of Palestinian autonomy looms ever larger - the first steps are due on Dec. 13 in the Gaza Strip and Jericho - Jewish settlers living in the occupied territories are increasingly venting their frustrations and fear of the future on Palestinians.
``Every day there is a violation by a settler,'' complains Bassam Eid, a researcher with the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. ``There is a war that is going to happen between the Palestinians and the settlers.''
And settler activists are making plans for more calculated actions than the sort of spontaneous rioting that has broken out so far.
Although acting Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres told the Knesset (parliament) yesterday, following the Ramallah shooting, that the Army would bolster its forces in the occupied territories, the settlers are not counting on protection from soldiers in the long term.
Despite government assurances that Israeli troops will defend the settlements during the interim five-year period of Palestinian autonomy, and that the settlements will be maintained even under the final arrangement, most settlers are convinced that the authorities are preparing to abandon them to their fate.
On Monday settler leaders announced the creation of a new self-defense militia named Hashomer, after the guard force that protected early Jewish settlements in Palestine against Arab attack before Israel was created.
If the Palestinian police force - expected to be 15,000 strong -
is armed, ``we will have to protect ourselves against an army, not just sporadic terrorist attacks,'' says Israel Harel, editor of a settler magazine.
Less-public initiatives are also under way, though their scope is hard to judge. A former leader of the extreme right-wing ``Kach'' movement, Rabbi Avraham Toldedano, was arrested last week at Ben Gurion airport, near Tel Aviv, trying to smuggle ammunition magazines, bomb fuses, detonators, timing devices, and telescopic sights into the country.
The discovery awoke memories of the so-called ``Jewish underground'' squads that car bombed Palestinian targets in the early 1980s.
At the same time, according to right-wing settler activist Yoel Lerner, a growing number of settlers are falsely reporting their army-issued weapons as lost, in order to keep them should the authorities ever decide to recall guns in settler hands.
``The settlers have to be ready for the possibility of a Hamas-inspired jihad [holy war],'' warns Mr. Lerner, who has spent time in jail for trying to blow up the Muslim Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.``There will come a time, probably pretty soon, when they will have to handle security on their own.''
THIS kind of thinking has found an echo even in the Knesset, where Rehavam Zeevy, a former Army general who now heads the right-wing ``Moledet'' party, caused an uproar last week by declaring that he would shoot any Palestinian policeman who tried to stop him in an autonomy zone and called on other Israelis to do likewise.
The prospect of settlers taking the law into their own hands, whether through above-ground groups such as Hashomer or clandestine organizations, has unnerved the government. ``Anyone who takes it upon himself to enforce the law in the way he sees fit, works against the law, and we will deal with him accordingly,'' Police Minister Moshe Shahal warned on Tuesday.
Settlers have complained that the secret police, Shin Bet, put its leaders under surveillance, prompting Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's office to say that the Shin Bet ``does not engage in the surveillance of settlers ... in the framework of their activities to express their opinions and protests according to the rules of law.''
There is little doubt, however, that the Shin Bet is keeping a close eye on extremist settlers whose activities might break the law. And although the vast majority of settlers do not support extremists, it would not take very many armed and highly motivated men to do considerable damage.
Baruch Marzel, for example, the current head of Kach, says he hopes 10 percent of the 120,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will resist, forcefully, the autonomy accord.
``That's a lot, and it's enough to have this plan broken,'' he says. ``We will win, it's just a question of how much blood will be spilt.''