Snow from the harshest winter in decades clings stubbornly to the ridges of the Judean hills above the winding highway that runs north from here to Jerusalem. Glistening in the midday sun, the snow gives the rocky countryside of the Israeli-occupied West Bank a deceptively placid appearance.
The warm sun suggests spring. But when spring came to the West Bank a year ago it was accompanied by an outbreak of violence. Following the dismissal of several elected Arab mayors by Israeli authorities, the territory erupted in disturbances. Before it was over, 10 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers had been killed and 123 others, 90 of them Arabs, had been injured.
Now, with spring again about to arrive, there is growing concern in Israel over the tension between the Arab inhabitants and the Jewish settlers in the territory. The concern has been heightened by several recent incidents that appear to be part of a disturbing pattern.
Within recent days:
A bomb went off beside a mosque during morning prayers Feb. 25 in the heart of this Arab city south of Jerusalem. Two men were injured and two automobiles damaged by the blast. A window of the mosque remains shattered, the stone wall around it blackened from the explosion.
Two nights later four bullets smashed through the front window of the home of Mohammed Nasser Jaabari, who lives across an orchard from the Jewish settlement of Qiryat Arba, near Hebron. Jaabari's daughter, Alia, 4, who was watching television with her family, was slightly injured in her right foot by shrapnel.
Monday, gunfire hit an Arab car on the outskirts of Hebron. There were no injuries, but the incident was among those that prompted the liberal Jerusalem newspaper Davar to deplore the "wild west" atmosphere that seems to be infecting the West Bank.
Tuesday, settlers from the Jewish community of Carmon southeast of Hebron detained and later turned over to police two Arab youths whom they accused of throwing rocks at their cars. Mustafa Natshe, the acting mayor of Hebron, charges that the settlers invaded a classroom of an Arab school to seize the youths. The Israeli Army, which is in charge of policing the West Bank, says it knows of no evidence to support Natshe's charge.
In addition to these incidents, the Israeli press reported last week that security agencies have uncovered a group of armed Jewish extremists who allegedly were plotting attacks on Arab residents of the Hebron area. According to the press accounts, members of the group live in Qiryat Arba and other nearby Jewish settlements and apparently hoped that attacks against the Arabs would cause many of them to flee the area.
Police sources were quoted as saying arrests are expected soon in connection with discovery of the group.
The settlers have their own list of complaints against the Arabs. In January, Esther Ohana, a young Israeli, was hit in the head by a rock as she was riding through the West Bank in a military vehicle.
Ohana died in mid-February, without regaining consciousness. A few days earlier, Emil Grunzweig, an Israeli peace activist, was killed by a grenade explosion during a demonstration outside the office of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The much greater attention given both in Israel and abroad to his death further embittered the settlers.
Also in mid-February, a grenade was thrown at two Israeli vehicles near Bethlehem and gunfire hit an Israeli car near Hebron. One man was injured in the latter incident.
Even taken together, these recent incidents do not nearly approach the level of last spring's violence. But the disturbing nature of the pattern has been noted in recent days in the Israeli press, which has split along partisan lines on the question of the cause of the trouble.
"There are frequent violent acts of harassment and bullying by the settlers against the Arab population, acts which cannot be justified by any need for self defense," said the independent newspaper Haaretz in an editorial Wednesday.
"It must be demanded that the authorities put an end to the long--too long--chain of lawlessness, of which the wounding of the little girl in Hebron was only one link. Not only is Jewish blood not for the taking. It is the right of every person living in the territories ruled by Israel that his blood not be for the taking," Haaretz said.
But the conservative newspaper Yediot Aharonoth, which unlike Haaretz supports the Begin government and its settlement policies, declared in an editorial Thursday: "The problem is not 'to stop the violent frenzy of the settlers in the West Bank'--to crush the Jewish reaction to Arab terror--but first of all to crush the basis of Arab terror against Jews, so that the latter will not have to defend themselves."
The paper suggested that the Israeli government remain on the sidelines, allowing the settlers to deal with Arab disturbances on their own terms.
According to Arab officials, that is usually just what the Israeli occupation authorities have been doing. Although the Israelis have announced appointment of a special police team to investigate the recent shooting incidents and say they have detained three Israelis for questioning in connection with them, Hebron Mayor Natshe in an interview last week expressed the cynicism of the Arabs toward law enforcement involving the Jewish settlers.
"Believe me," he said, "no one will be charged."
According to Natshe, the gunmen who fired into the Jaabari home were seen fleeing to Qiryat Arba, the nearby settlement founded by members of the militantly nationalistic Gush Emunim. Natshe said he believes the settlers are trying to provoke incidents with the Arabs of Hebron to win government support and protection for their plans to expand the Jewish community in Hebron, an overwhelmingly Arab city that is also a holy site to orthodox Jews.
"The settlers want to make friction in any way they can between them and the residents of Hebron so they can go on to the next step in their policy of building inside the city," he said.
At the local council office of Qiryat Arba, a woman said that no one was available to talk to reporters about the recent incidents. Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a leader of Gush Emunim and one of the founders of Qiryat Arba who has since led the vanguard of Jewish settlement within Hebron, said, "I don't know anything about it," when asked about the incidents.