Unrest increases as Israel tightens hold on occupied territories
Unrest continues to grip the territories occupied by Israel as Defense Minister Ariel Sharon persists in his hard-line policy aimed at ensuring the permanency of the Israeli presence there.
At least 10 Palestinians and two Israelis have been killed during demonstrations in the past six weeks - more than in the previous 15 years, according to Israeli sources. At least 93 Palestinians and 71 Israelis have been wounded.
''There may be periods of relative calm but the unrest will inevitably continue,'' says a veteran Israeli journalist who covers the West Bank. ''(General) Sharon has committed himself to a head-on confrontation and there's no way back.''
Despite Israeli pressures, there is no sign that resistance is weakening. Twenty-six Arab mayors in the West Bank and Gaza Strip jointly warned the Israeli authorities last week that they would suspend their local government's activities unless four mayors who have been deposed by Israel were restored to their positions.
To complicate matters, Prime Minister Menachem Begin said May 5 that Israel will refuse to resume talks on Palestinian self-rule in the occupied territories , called for in the Camp David accords, if Jerusalem is boycotted by the United States and Egypt as a site for the discussions.
Meanwhile, on the Golan Heights, the bulk of the Druze residents continues to refuse to accept the Israeli identity cards which the authorities attempted to distribute following the Golan's annexation last December. The blockade imposed for two months on the Druze villages has been lifted after it failed to force them into accepting the cards. But other restrictions remain in force.
General Sharon, who took over the defense post from Prime Minister Begin last summer, has embarked on a deliberate campaign to break the hold of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and foster an alternative leadership willing to negotiate with Israel on Palestinian autonomy. The PLO and the local Palestinian leadership reject the idea of autonomy under Israeli sovereignty and demand Israel's outright departure from the territories.
The dismissal of the mayor and city council of el Bireh for their refusal to meet with the Israeli West Bank civil administrator touched off the current round of unrest, said by some Arabs to be the worst since the Israeli occupation began in the six-day war of 1967.
Dismissals followed of the mayors of Nablus, Ramallah, and Anabta - all of them for alleged PLO connections. In dealing with the riots that followed these actions, Israeli security forces frequently used gunfire to disperse stone-throwing demonstrators. Israeli civilians, apparently from the settlements established on the West Bank, also used weapons a number of times when their vehicles were stoned. Opposition Labor Party members in the Knesset (parliament) May 5 sharply challenged the use of gunfire to supress demonstrations.
General Sharon maintains that his policy is the first since the Israeli occupation to have ''direction'' rather than merely preserving a status quo. ''We are working step by step,'' he said in a recent interview to the daily Maariv. ''Our policy is to make life easier for those residents willing to quietly coexist with us and to make life difficult for the others.''
The civil administration he created, which assumed those responsibilities from the military government not connected with security, was seen as a step toward the Palestinian autonomous council envisaged in the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords.
General Sharon also gave his backing to Arab village leagues on the West Bank , even arming their members, in order to promote them as an alternative to PLO leadership.
Sharon has also been the principal force behind intensive Israeli settlement in Arab-populated areas of the West Bank. This is a reversal of the policy established by then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan after the six-day war. Mr. Dayan believed in avoiding mixing the two populations for fear of constant friction.
In addition to the settlers, there is now also a heightened Israeli military presence on the West Bank following the redeployment there of many units withdrawn from Sinai.
Sharon says he has a multistage plan which he is not willing to reveal. He warns, however, that unless the Egyptians and Palestinians stop dragging their feet on autonomy negotiations, as he sees it, ''there will be so many changes on the ground in a few years they won't recognize the area.''
It is too early to say whether Sharon's policy will succeed or fail in the narrow sense of achieving pacification. Many Israeli critics, however, see it as doomed to fail politically.