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In Israel, Old Calls to 'Keep Up Fighting Spirit' Fall Flat : Violence: An upsurge of Palestinian attacks has quickened support for a separation between the country and the occupied territories.

April 04, 1993|Yossi Melman | Yossi Melman is the author of "The New Israelis: An Intimate View of a Changing People," to be published by Birch Lane Press.

TALMEI ELAZAR, ISRAEL — This normally quiet and little known rural community of farmers became, overnight, a household name last week. Two of its police officers were gunned down while taking a nap in their patrol car. The military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian fundamentalist movement, claimed responsibility.

To Israelis who have lived in the shadow of death and bereavement for decades, these killings might have been accepted as just another incident in the intifada. Since December, 1987, more than 176 Israelis and 900 Palestinians have died in the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But the slayings of the two officers brought the number of Israelis shot or knifed to death, inside Israel and in the occupied territories, to 15--in March alone. It was the last straw: An unprecedented wave of outrage, shock, anger and frustration has taken hold of the country.

"How much longer?" pleaded the front-page headline of Ma'ariv', a leading daily tabloid. Fear is the governing emotion. Mothers are afraid to send their children to schools. Housewives pass up on home deliveries if they are done by Palestinians. Employers think twice before hiring cheap Palestinian labor. Many Israelis would agree that they feel unsafe walking their streets.

Benjamin Netanyahu, newly elected leader of the right-wing Likud opposition, is exploiting this increasing sense of helplessness. "We know how to deal with terrorism," he boasts, adding, "Prime Minister Rabin should resign and call new elections."

Netanyahu's challenge forced Yitzhak Rabin's left-of-center Cabinet to tighten its grip on the 2 million Palestinians in the occupied territories. The old borders between Israel and the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were closed to Palestinians. Army and police reinforcements were dispatched to patrol the streets of Arab towns and villages. Use-of-force rules against Palestinians were relaxed.

These actions are not new, despite the authorities' attempts to portray them as such. It has become nearly routine for Israelis officials to impose a curfew and close the territories when Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens escalates.

Some 120,000 Palestinians, mostly unskilled, enter Israel to work in agriculture and construction. Sectors of the Israeli economy are heavily dependent on this cheap labor. Paradoxically, however, without their jobs in Israel, the Palestinians could not feed their families. "This is a state of affairs which will only add to the already high tension," admits Gen. Matan Vilnai of the Southern Command, "and will only cause more terrorism."

While conceding that there are no "magic solutions" to Palestinian disobedience, civil unrest and terrorism, Rabin has called on the public to keep up its morale: "We must recover our old fighting spirit." The 70-year-old prime minister has even suggested that high-school children be armed with sticks for self-defense--"as it was in my days." The commissioner of the National Police, Gen. Yaacov Turmer, has urged Israelis to pack guns to protect their lives.

Ironically, these recommendations, besides being impractical, clash with the country's prevailing mood. Israel is no longer the determined nation that Rabin seeks to evoke. Today's Israelis are no longer eager to make personal sacrifices on the national altar. Instead, they wave the banners of better education for their children and better health care for themselves--not just that of security and defense. Israel has ostensibly become an affluent consumer society whose citizens expect quick satisfaction and immediate solutions.

Rabin's suggestions are thus received as a nuisance, obstacles in the path leading to the Israeli dream. The high-school student will still devote his thoughts to buying a car, not to finding a stick to fend off Palestinians. The average Israeli still looks forward to vacation abroad, not to a stint of reservist service.

This new reality is why more and more Israelis think that the only way out of the violence and bloodshed is to separate Israel from the occupied territories. Until recently, it was strictly the minority of the Israeli left who advocated this solution--on the basis of the universal right of any people, including the Palestinians, for self-determination.

The growing frequency of border closures and curfews quietly indicates, however, that separation, though for different reasons, is also the favorite solution for increasing numbers of people on the right. Last week, a number of Cabinet ministers even called for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, or alternatively, to hand over the area to the Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization.

Rabin rejects these ideas out of a concern that such gestures would be interpreted as a sign of weakness and capitulation to "the terror of knives." He prefers a mutually agreed, step-by-step peace agreement. But time is running out.

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