Ariel Sharon, the Israeli cabinet minister who has a leading role in establishment of new Jewish settlements in occupied territory, today accused the government of "mishandling" recent student demonstrations in the West Bank that resulted in the wounding of more than a dozen Arabs.
Sharon, who is responsible for the implementation of the government's policy of establishing Israeli settlements on the West Bank, called, in an interview with Israeli state radio, for a policy of "determination and sensitivity" in maintaining order there. The former minister of agriculture thus joined several other prominent critics of the government's actions.
About 15 students in Ramallah, Nablus and Bir Zeit were injured, mostly by gunshot wounds, in incidents in the past two weeks. Military spokesmen have said that the soldiers resorted to shooting at demonstrators' legs only when other measures to control them had failed.
"There is no single answer to the problem," Sharon told the radio interviewer. "One has to look for a different every day. These answers must must anticipate the actions that may be taken by the inhabitants of the West Bank, so that the proper response will be given as soon as a new situation is created."
Sharon also said he vehemently opposed the military government's policy of administering collective punishment to families of West Bank rioters. He said he would justify opening fire on demonstrators only after other means to restore order had failed and when the lives of the Israeli soldiers were in danger.
Several other Israelis have charged recently that the occupation forces have been using excessive force to put down West Bank demonstrations.
When the subject was discussed earlier this week by the defense and foreign relations committees of Israel's parliament, opposition members warned that this policy can lead to serious problems.
"There can be nothing worse for us than to acquire the image of those who feel obliged to shoot at teenaged boys and girls with rocks in their hands," argued Amnon Rubenstein of the Shinui Center Party.
Israeli reporters, both on the state radio and in the independent press, also criticized the army's handling of the disturbances. They said that at a demonstration in Ramallah where 10 Arab youths were wounded, some of the army vehicles were not equipped with tear-gas bombs and loud-speakers that could have been used before firearms were brought out.
Yehuda Litani, a columnist in the daily newspaper Haaretz, criticized what he said was the military government's policy of repressive measures evident in the restriction of movement of several West Bank leaders and in censoring works of art, claiming that they incited to violence.
Some analysts blame the recent troubles on the government's decision to crack down on moderate West Bank leaders as well as militants. Moderates such as Bethlemen Mayor Elias Freij, these analysts contend, were humiliated when their freedom of movement was restricted and their effectiveness was diminished when they were treated as Palestine Liberation Organization sympathizers. The recent events, they contend, is an expression of the frustration of both sides.
Israeli government spokesmen and military authorities reject this criticism.
The events of the past two weeks, they contend, were timed to coincide with the Arab summit meeting in Amman. The PLO, they say, wanted to prove to the Arab leaders that no one else can speak for the Palestinians. Military circles also claim that, despite the casualties, the demonstrations of the past two weeks were not as extensive as similar events in the past 13 years.
Government spokesmen also argue that, since Israel adopted a get-tough policy last May following an Arab ambush in Hebron in which six Israeli settlers were killed, and attacks that left two Arabs mayors maimed, the West Bank has been relatively quiet. This, they say, shows that the policy pursued by Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan has, on the whole, been justified.
A report of the Nov. 18 shooting in Ramallah, published today by Israeli military authorities, claims that the soldiers' behavior was proper and that they used their guns only when all other measures proved futile. The report claims that accounts of the event by foreign television distorted facts and gave the wrong impression.
Sharon's criticism has been ridiculed by some in the army who recalled that when he was military governor of the Gaza area in 1968, he often resorted to collective punishment, using bulldozers to destroy houses of suspected supporters of terrorists.
Sharon was also critical today of Israel defense spending, asserting that the country could save more than $300 million by trimming its standing army and putting more emphasis on reserve units.