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With No Hope, Gaza Seethes : To Defuse Situation, Israel Must Take Long View Toward Peace

December 23, 1987|PAUL JOHNSON | Historian Paul Johnson is the author of "A History of the Jews" (Harper & Row, 1987)

LONDON — The spasm of violent Arab unrest in Israeli-occupied territories was predictable, probably inevitable, and only in a limited sense resolvable. On the other hand, it is not going to provoke a general crisis in the Middle East.

The Middle East can cope with only one major crisis at a time, and it already has an acute phase of the Persian Gulf war to handle. Indeed, to be cynical, you might say that the world's preoccupation with the gulf was the underlying reason why the Palestinians erupted in Gaza.

They feel that their grievance, now 40 years old, is neglected and unheard. The Arab-Israeli problem has been firmly put on the international back burner.

The great powers are intensely concerned about the gulf war because of its potential for dragging them into it. But they are not at present all that worried about Arab-Israeli relations. They were not on the agenda in Margaret Thatcher's recent talks with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, or at his Washington summit meeting with Ronald Reagan.

Feeling neglected, and so angry, it is easy enough for young Arabs, on the Gaza Strip or the West Bank or in Jerusalem, to become actively engaged and resort to violence against Israeli forces.

Gaza is a particularly dispiriting and violence-provoking place. It is overcrowded with young people whose grandfathers were, or say they were, dispossessed in 1948. It was a hell spot and a source of endless trouble when the Egyptians ran it. It has been on the whole much quieter under Israeli administration.

But its inhabitants have never accepted Israeli rule, and presumably never will. There is high unemployment and not many prospects for talented youngsters. Many of them have been in jail for minor breaches of regulations or acts of violence. And in jail they are indoctrinated into Arab militancy by fellow convicts.

It requires only a small incident to build up fever heat in Gaza, which can then easily spread to the West Bank (the process also works in reverse). The present cycle started early in October, when a vehicle loaded with Arabs crashed an Israeli roadblock in Gaza and the Israeli sentries killed three of its occupants.

It has built up steadily ever since--spreading to most of the occupied territories and even this week within Israel itself--partly as a result of initial Israeli over-reaction, not to say brutality. Then, when the Israelis attempted to scale down the violence, extremist Arab elements naturally began to manipulate it.

But there is no evidence so far that any Arab state, even Syria, has attempted to exploit the crisis, except perhaps in propaganda terms. Evidently, on this occasion, they do not want to get involved. That gives the Israelis a chance to defuse the situation. Can they do it?

They start with one important disadvantage. What Israel lacks in coping with widespread Arab violence is an adequate number of properly trained and equipped riot troops. In Northern Ireland, for instance, the British have a wholly professional force, trained over years in what are termed "low-intensity operations" and with all the sophisticated anti-riot vehicles that they can possibly need.

The Israeli army, by contrast, is a largely conscript force of mainly young people, trained and equipped primarily for battle against major Arab armies. Used in a large-scale police role, they are clumsy. They tend to be frightened and violent.

The first object of the Israeli government must be to improve the army's anti-riot response by intensive training and the rapid supply of better equipment. This may seem an obvious point to make, but it is probably the key to the whole thing. And there is no reason why the government should not handle this aspect of the problem effectively.

In many ways it is the most effective government that Israel has had since David Ben-Gurion's day. The coalition, with Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres taking turns as prime minister, may be in theory an awkward arrangement, but in practice it has worked well. It has isolated the extremists in the Israeli political spectrum. It has extricated the army from its disastrously exposed position in Lebanon. It has performed wonders with the Israeli economy, turning inflation from 200%-plus per year to around 15%.

What it has not done is get the peace process working again. Indeed, this is the point on which Shamir and Peres really disagree. As foreign minister Peres tried to reactivate it earlier this year. He got a certain amount of verbal support in the West, but Shamir openly sneered at the effort, which ended in failure.

Peres believes--rightly, in my opinion--that it is essential for Israel's long-term future to be seen at all times to be doing everything in its power to reach a permanent peace with all its neighbors.

But his arguments also apply to the short term. The reason why young men are getting themselves killed in Gaza and the West Bank, in the obviously futile attempt to overthrow Israeli authority, is that they have absolutely nothing--even in the far-distant future--for which to hope.

They must be given hope. The best way to do it is get negotiations going again. The Arab states are at present incapable of taking any initiative. This means that Israel must accept the responsibility. The United States should provide all the encouragement in its power.

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