JERUSALEM — Stung by international criticism over its handling of a wave of unrest in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and threatened with escalating clashes, the Israeli government declared Sunday that it is dealing with the situation "in a way that is more restrained than any other government in the world in similar circumstances."
Speaking after their regular weekly Cabinet session, government ministers also accused the media of publishing "exaggerated" reports about the violence that has rocked the territories for 12 straight days.
The military command released a list of the names of 15 Palestinians it said had died from army gunfire during the unrest, and it angrily denied a report published in a leftist Israeli newspaper Sunday quoting unnamed military sources as saying the army had covered up the deaths of at least 10 more victims.
Nevertheless, confusion remained over the precise number of dead, with the United Nations listing 17 victims and the pro-PLO Palestine Press Service showing 20 names.
Disturbances continued here Sunday, with six more Palestinians wounded by gunfire in clashes with the army. The most seriously injured person was shot after hurling a gasoline bomb at a paramilitary border policeman, according to the army. Five others were shot in the legs--four during a large-scale demonstration at the West Bank's Fara refugee camp and the fifth in Gaza City.
There is also considerable uncertainty over the number of wounded during the recent unrest. The army now claims that about 70 people have been injured by gunfire, although the sum of those cited in its daily reports since the trouble began Dec. 9 is about 120. Palestinian and U.N. sources put the total of wounded at about 200, mostly from gunshots.
Protest Strike Today
While the level of violence has ebbed in the last two days, authorities are admittedly worried about the possibility of a serious flare-up today during a planned, united protest strike by Israel's 700,000 Arab citizens and the nearly 1.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The military government announced that about 800 schools in the territories will be closed today and Tuesday in hopes of reducing the chances that demonstrations and protests might erupt into violent clashes.
Israeli Arab leaders voted late last week to call the strike in solidarity with the Palestinians of the occupied territories--an extraordinary political move, raising the danger that confrontations could spread within Israel's pre-1967 borders.
Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Another Israeli concern is today's expected U.N. Security Council vote on a resolution condemning the government for its handling of the unrest. The Israeli media reported Sunday that the government is engaged in a determined effort to persuade Washington that it should veto any such measure.
Meanwhile, a Foreign Ministry official coordinating efforts to limit damage to Israel's image from the unrest said in an interview here Sunday that the government is shocked by the readiness of many nations "to react to what's happening in the territories as if it were occurring in a dictatorship."
While not claiming that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are happy under Israeli rule, Yossi Beilin, political director general of the Foreign Ministry, charged that the unrest is being "agitated from abroad."
"It is the PLO that is trying to get the profit of those who are killed there (in the territories)," he said.
Beilin said that Israel has proof that the Palestine Liberation Organization is fomenting unrest but that he is not at liberty to disclose the nature of the proof. He cited his reputation as a political dove in saying that his interviewer should trust his word.
Beilin also said it is too early to tell how badly Israel's public image has been damaged by the latest events in the territories. However, he had previously called recent criticism the worst since Israel bombed Beirut during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
The official said that a special Foreign Ministry task force has been set up to keep Israeli missions abroad informed on what is happening in the territories--and why--and also to forward to the army the protests and complaints from foreign governments.
Army Caught Unprepared
Beilin said that the army had not been prepared for the size and widespread nature of the protests that broke out in the territories nearly two weeks ago and that, as a result, troops found themselves in situations where "almost the only way to deal with it is to open fire."
Now, he said, more troops have been deployed and their tactics altered with an eye toward reducing casualties. He said he could not point to a direct link between the activities of his special task force and any change in army procedures, but he suggested that they may have had an influence.
At its regular Sunday meeting, the Cabinet heard reports on the unrest in the territories from the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron. Chaim Bar-Lev, the police minister, reported on Saturday's extraordinary rioting in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, and acting Foreign Minister Ezer Weizman reported on world reaction to the events.
Summarizing the ministers' secret deliberations, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said the Cabinet was "united in its support of the actions of the security forces." He maintained that unspecified "figures which were published in the media concerning casualties were extremely exaggerated."