A sudden upturn in the frequency of disturbances in the Israeli-occupied West Bank has led to growing concern by Israeli military authorities and moderate Palestinians that the new year could usher in more violence just as peace negotiations reach a critical stage.
Each side blames the other for igniting the clashes that have swept through the West Bank after a period of relative calm through the summer and fall.
Officials at the military governor's headquarters here say that the recent wave of disturbances is just the prelude to a campaign by extremist Palestinian political leaders -- guided by the Palestine Liberation Organization -- to provoke Israeli Army occupation units into harsh reprisals. The Army's response, it is felt, would provide a rallying point for ideologically diverse Palestinians, while at the same time generating empathy abroad for their nationalist cause.
Sources in the military said several radical West Bank mayors and members of a nationalist group called the National Guidance Committee met secretly last week in East Jerusalem and decided to concentrate on promoting demonstrations against Jewish civilian settlements and expropriation of Arab-owned land.
Those popular issues, it was said, were picked as targets over the Camp David peace accords and the proposed West Bank autonomy plan because they would obligate even the most moderate Palestinians to support the protests.
Palestinian leaders say the clashes have been instigated by the military command to dissipate growing Arab unity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and have been calculated to dispirit the autiautomomy movement. The goal of the Israeli government, the West Bank political figures say, is to impose limited self-rule, stifling Arab dissent against it.
West Bank Arabs also complain that the Army has been helped by ultranationalist Israeli civilian settlers who have formed vigilante squads to raid Arab villages in reprisal for rock-throwing attacks on Jewish-owned vehicles.
Whether by conspiracy or by chance, the pattern of unrest and tension is unmistakable. Some examples:
An official of Bir Zeit University in Rammallah walks into an afternoon Arab tea party in East Jerusalem and, to the astonishment of the guests, throws a bagful of expended tear-gas connisters and rifle cartridge casings onto the floor. In excited tones, he describes one of two violent clashes at the Arab university between militant students and Israeli soldiers, in which 13 students were arrested.
The mayor of the village of Halhoul, near Hebron, confides to foreign reporters that he is afraid for his life because of reports that Israeli civilian vigilantes have vowed to kill him. His only protection, Mayor Mohammed Milhem says, is to make the threat public. Earlier in the week, in retribution for stone-throwing by Halhoul teen-agers, Israeli ultranationalists burst into a village store and beat up the owner and a local Moslem religious Leader.
After youths from the Jalazoun refugee camp, north of here, showered rocks at Israeli schoolchildren passing in a bus, injuring two a group of armed settlers from Shiloh enter a girls' school and smash windows and laboratory equipment. Several days later, after another rock-throwing incident, the settlers return to the school and abduct a student, taking her to the military headquarters for questioning.
Security forces fire tear gas and warning shots in Beit Ummar to break up a symbolic funeral procession of a thousand Arabs mourning a locally born PLO official who was assassinated in Cyprus. The gunshots ring out after tires are burned and rocks are thrown by Beit Ummar youths.
The renewed violence actually appears to stem from a collision of complex political crosscurrents building up for months, according to a composite of opinions obtained in interviews with Palestinian and Israeli sources.
The arrest of Nablus Mayor Bassam Shaka last month on since-disproved charges of advocating terrorism led sharply divided political factions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to begin to pull together, a process that accelerated when Israel retreated under internal and world pressure and released Shaka from prison.
Self-confident and euphorie, the Palestinian leaders have been celebrating their victory with banquets, receptions and meetings, some of which have been flagrantly in violation of the military government's ban on unauthorized political rallies.
Initially intended as self-congratulatory social events, these meetings have become increasingly strident in their opposition to the occupation and the nationalistic message has not been lost on the youthful ears of thousands of Palestinian students who traditionally have been in the vanguard of demonstrations against military rule.
Paralleling that exuberant surge has been growing frustration within the military government over the much-heralded Arab victory. The Israelis show uncertainty and even divisions within the chain of command over where to draw the line on West Bank political activities.
In an apparent effort to undermine the new-found political alliance between West Bank and Gaza Strip, leaders, the government ordered a ban of travel by Gaza Mayor Rahid Shawa.
But there has been less decisiveness over the question of unauthorized political meetings, reportedly because some military officials want them all prohibited and others would like to see them tolerated as long as they do not become seditious.