AS Israel's military grip tightens on the Gaza Strip, quelling unrest among the 650,000 Palestinian refugees encamped there, one has to ask: How long will it take, and how much suffering, before Israel finds a way to free itself from its role of suppressor? An ethnically oriented people cannot be kept under what it regards as foreign rule forever. Military force can at best reduce such a people to sullen nonproductivity. The role of occupier is costly. Civil emergencies like those going on in Gaza, and reaching now into Jerusalem itself, recur. An occupying power, with its military orientation, refuses to discuss political settlement until it is certain any negotiations will end to its advantage. Behind occupation is the notion that a state of war exists; this itself encourages a certain resistance. South Africa, Poland: The miserable endlessness of trying to hold an armed lid on a people's desire to live under full citizenship should be evident to those who will look.
Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin contends that the Palestinian rioting in the Gaza is an effort to draw world attention to the Arab-Israel conflict. Observers there say otherwise. But even if Mr. Rabin's contention were accepted, much remains to draw attention to, as a Monitor report from Jerusalem outlined Dec. 18. The Israeli military administration bans organized political activity in the occupied territories. The Palestinian press endures censorship. Palestinians live under military, not civil, justice. Their property rights can be overrun for a number of reasons. Israeli officials can point out that many Palestinians live more freely under occupation than do citizens in neighboring Arab states. This does not gainsay the injustice that persists - and deeply disturbs many Israelis, too.
The Israelis must resolve what kind of relationship they want to have with the Palestinians. The government holds out to meet chiefly with Jordan, as it did with Egypt, to reach a bilateral accord on West Bank status. Next year's Israeli election for the moment at least enhances the right wing's power. With the United States facing its own election next year, Washington seems no more inclined to take on the task of securing a just settlement of the occupied territories' status.
The US is tightly bound up with Israeli security. Still, for Washington to play a role in deciding Israeli occupation methods would only appear to align the US further with the occupiers.
As guarantor of Israel's military and economic survival, however, Washington cannot escape leadership responsibility for the impasse in the occupied territories. And the frustrations of formulating a Palestinian negotiating coalition must be acknowledged. But the future promises only more cycles of violence if the Israelis themselves do not reconsider the notion that suppressive force can work in the Holy Land when it has not worked there or elsewhere before.