Day after day, young Palestinians assemble to burn tires, throw stones, threaten motorists, and not-so-young Israelis finally resort to live ammunition. More than 30 Palestinians have already died. The price for Israel is also high in terms of international disapproval of its policies.
It is a classic late-20th-century confrontation between not-so-civil disobedience and a not-so-iron fist. Each time Israel uses lethal force to fight off stone throwers (in this region where stoning is a mode of execution), Israel loses, and the demonstrators know it. The media make the difference, and the media know it. It has already gone on for more than five weeks. The end is not in sight.
''It needs time,'' Israel's defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, explains. Some of Rabin's colleagues in Israel's divided Cabinet complain that the government only reacts, that it is not in charge. Rabin is forced to agree. The problem is more difficult than anyone originally believed, he avows. The hostility of the Arab population is more widespread than most Israelis understood.
''What benefit is there in being saddled with a huge subject population who hate our guts, knife our soldiers, throw rocks at our vehicles, and force our troops to shoot at them, thus acquiring a halo of martyrdom which arouses sympathy all over the Middle East and all over the world?'', wrote David Krivine of the Jerusalem Post. He poses a question arising in the minds of more and more Israelis.
The longer a problem lasts the harder it is to remember what it is about. Since the so-called Arab-Israeli problem is now 40 years old, it is hard for Americans and others to remember that Israel's Arab neighbors still refuse to accept Israel's existence.
It seems incredible that many Arab diplomats still will not speak the name Israel. It seems incredible that Arab states do not show Israel on their maps and that only recently Egypt's education minister barred from his country's schools a world map that included Israel. It seems incredible that, as punishment for making peace with Israel, Egypt was the subject of a total diplomatic boycott by the Arab world (a boycott that ended only this year).
It seems incredible that two Arab heads of state -- Anwar Sadat and Bashir Gemayel -- were assassinated for the crime of making peace, and incredible that Palestinians in and out of the PLO have been murdered for speaking about speaking with Israeli officials. But all these things are true.
It is important now, when Israel is being reproached on all sides for 20 years of military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, to recall that this occupation did not begin with Israeli aggression but with aggression against Israel. Who remembers that from 1948 to 1967, Egypt was responsible for the administration of Gaza and proposed no constructive solutions? Or that Israel's occupation of the territories came in 1967 after Israel's Arab neighbors had, for the second time, launched a war designed to eliminate the new state from the region as well as from its maps?
Who remembers that the occupation has continued ever since because Israel's neighbors have doggedly refused to enter negotiations that would provide secure borders for all -- as called for by U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 (passed in 1967 and 1973 respectively)? Again and again Israel has offered to exchange ''land for peace,'' and proved its good faith by returning the Sinai to Egypt in the wake of the Camp David accords. Who understands that those same neighbors who will not make peace have been willing to sacrifice a generation of Palestinians in their continued vendetta against Israel?
The United Nations has participated in this human sacrifice through its management of the camps that are filled today with second- and third-generation refugees. The U.N. becomes an accomplice. It's UNRRA is the only refugee program that seeks not to resettle its displaced persons but to keep them in camps for decades. The United States contributes more than $60 million annually to this ''refugee'' policy that sacrifices Palestinians to the politics of ''return'' to a ''homeland'' from which the majority never came.
What would a constructive solution to the Palestinian problem look like? Many Palestinians in the region support the ''Jordanian option'' of a homeland in confederation with Jordan. But the PLO and its supporters have created the myth that the PLO is the ''sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.'' And the U.N. has helped disseminate this myth.
The immediate goal of the PLO is a PLO state whose existence is no more compatible with the stability of Jordan than of Israel. And to further complicate the matter, Jordanian King Hussein, whose country already has a Palestinian majority, declines to discuss the question except in the context of an ''international conference'' that would bring into the negotiations the Soviet Union and its ''Syrian'' agenda.
Obviously, Israel must find a solution consistent with its democratic values and cannot indefinitely rule by force a rebellious population. Yet neither can Israel permit the development on its borders of a state dedicated to its destruction and to destabilization of the region.
It seems more and more clear that Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza (many of whom would become refugees again from a PLO state) need to speak for themselves about Palestinian aspirations.
They now have the world's attention. We are all listening carefully for what they have to say.