IN its panoply of measures to keep order in the occupied territories, the Israeli Army has at its disposal one particularly handy item, known as a ``closed military area.''
When a local military commander in the West Bank or Gaza Strip deems it necessary, he can declare a field, a road, or an entire town, a closed military area, and deny access to that area to anyone he wants to keep out.
Traditionally, the device has been used to keep Palestinians and journalists away from controversy - spots where a Jewish settlement is about to be established, for example. Israeli settlers, driving cars with easily identifiable yellow license plates, have never been delayed at Army roadblocks.
Suddenly, the tables are turned. This weekend the Israeli military authorities declared Ramallah and Nablus, two towns north of Jerusalem, closed military areas, after denying religious Jewish settlers permission to hold a potentially provocative celebration at a ``yeshiva'' in Nablus. At the roadblocks, it was the Israelis who were turned back.
This unusual experience is part of a new drive by the Israeli government to get a grip on Jewish settlers in the wake of a wave of violence against Palestinians. Calls on the Army to get tough with extremist settlers mounted two weeks ago, after Israeli television broadcast film of settlers in Hebron opening fire on Palestinians while soldiers stood by and did nothing.
In contrast, soldiers arrested 39 settlers last Thursday night when they attempted to get past a roadblock near Nablus in defiance of the Army ban on their procession, and held them overnight.
The arrests were the first since the publication last week of a new Army booklet, authorizing soldiers to arrest Israelis, and to impose curfews on them, if the need arises.
``Under extraordinary circumstances, Israel Defense Force soldiers are permitted to arrest settlers who are acting wildly,'' the booklet explains. ``The military commander has the authority to place a curfew for operational reasons, if necessary, on an area in which both Jews and Arabs are located.''
THE instructions do not embody new orders, but ``clarify what can be done, because there was a lot of confusion in the field,'' says Army spokesman Lt. Col. Moshe Fogel. ``What's new is that there is a problem that was not there beforehand that needs to be dealt with.''
The booklet has infuriated settlers. ``You impose a curfew on your enemies, not on your brothers,'' says Shai Bazak, a spokesman for the Yesha settlers' group. ``It is not right to put us on one side and the Army on the other. I'm afraid that this order by the government will mean that some of our people will get into fights with the Army, and that would be very dangerous.''
Some settlers have argued that they cannot be arrested by soldiers, because they are subject to Israeli law, not the military orders that govern the lives of Palestinians.
This, however, ``is because they are not used to the law being applied,'' says Moshe Negbi, a legal commentator. ``This [booklet] stops the legal discrimination between Palestinians and Israeli citizens. The law does not discriminate, but enforcement had been discriminatory.''
Stark evidence of this discrimination has also surfaced in a report just issued by Dedi Zucker, chairman of the Knesset (parliament) law committee, into 40 cases of complaints against settlers filed with the police over the past three years. In only five cases were suspects brought to trial.
Of eight cases in which Palestinians were murdered, only two cases came to trial. One has been under investigation for three years, and the other five cases have been closed for lack of a suspect.
This ``points to the paralysis of the legal authorities with regard to crimes committed by the settlers,'' Mr. Zucker argues. ``Legal authorities have no real ability to investigate, to take evidence, or to provide evidence which would allow indictments to be handed down.
``Palestinian residents are abandoned into the hands of the settlers who take the law into their own hands, since they know that Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] is a land without law and without justice,'' he adds.
In a bid to forestall further murders, Israeli police arrested six people, including four United States citizens, on Friday, on suspicion of conspiracy to attack Palestinians and illegal possession of weapons. They were reportedly implicated by Rabbi Avraham Toledano, former leader of the extreme right wing ``Kach'' group, who was arrested three weeks ago trying to smuggle explosives and ammunition into Israel.