TEL AVIV, JAN. 18 -- A wary Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said today he believed that the six-week-long wave of unrest and violence in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank may gradually be abating but Israel would continue to use tough measures such as military curfews, curbs on the press and large troop deployments until tranquillity was restored.

"It is not yet calmed down," Rabin, who is in charge of Israel's overall security strategy in the occupied territories, said in an interview at defense headquarters here. "I hope, I believe, it is in a process of being calmed down."

The defense minister insisted that restoring law and order was only an interim measure and that political negotiations among Israel, Jordan and Palestinians from the occupied areas would be necessary to bring about a long-term solution to the conflict.

But he reiterated Israel's refusal to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Israel has declared illegal, and he said he did not yet see a new leadership emerging from the occupied territories who might be willing to negotiate a settlement without the PLO.

The military curfews Israel has imposed on seven Gaza refugee camps for more than a week have become a new source of controversy, with U.N. relief officials charging that the Army has blocked shipments of food and medical supplies to the camps, which house nearly 200,000 Palestinians.

Rabin said that once order is restored, he would gradually lift the curfews. But he insisted that Israel was not preventing food from entering the camps.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which operates the camps, "has to adjust its supplies to our timing," said Rabin.

The purpose of the curfews, he said, was "first, to pacify the area," and "second, to make clear to {the Palestinians} that we have got the forces and measures to impose our own will not in the political sense but in the maintaining of tranquillity."

Israeli television reported tonight that an Arab woman injured last month in rioting on the West Bank died today. The Army did not confirm the death, The Associated Press said, but Israeli radio quoted security sources as saying she died of a heart attack. At least 36 Palestinians have been killed in the six weeks of violence. No Israelis have been killed in the disturbances.

Gaza and the West Bank were relatively quiet today. But correspondents for Reuter, The Associated Press and United Press International said they saw Israeli soldiers intercept a small group of middle-aged Palestinian women outside the Nusseirat refugee camp in Gaza, confiscate shopping baskets of vegetables and bread and dump them on the road.

"We are not punishing them, we just want to give them a reason to obey the curfew," an Israeli colonel who identified himself only as Avi told the Reuter correspondent at the scene. "They were going out of a camp under curfew. If they succeed, there will be 200 tomorrow."

Rabin said he was not aware of the incident. But he generally defended the behavior of Israeli soldiers, some of whom have been portrayed in graphic television footage beating unarmed youths and other Arab civilians during the recent violence, and he said curfews helped to minimize confrontations between soldiers and civilians.

"One has to understand that any violence when it is described, photographed, televised is ugly," said Rabin, a former general who became Army chief of staff and later served as prime minister.

"Wars are ugly, fighting terrorism is ugly, and no doubt the kind of confrontation between police and military people with civilians is an ugly picture. Therefore, on the one hand, you have to try your best to put an end with minimal casualties. Whenever it was found that it's impossible to do it by just clashes, we put a curfew."

Rabin is one of the three Israeli leaders -- the others are Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres -- who control governmental policy in the uneasy coalition between Shamir's rightist Likud bloc and Peres' more dovish Labor Alignment.

Although he is a member of Labor, Rabin has generally taken a hard line on the unrest, becoming the de facto spokesman for measures such as the deportation of accused Palestinian activists, curbs on press coverage and the use of live ammunition by troops in situations where they believe their lives endangered.

Those stands have led critics on the left to charge that Rabin sounds more like Shamir than Shamir himself. Peres, the most dovish of the three, has reportedly grown increasingly uneasy with the hard line of the government, and today he called again for early elections to test popular support for his position.

Elections are due in November, and Shamir is believed to have the votes in the Cabinet and in the parliament to continue governing even if Labor were to drop out. Peres gave no indication that he is prepared to go that far, but he is said to be concerned that Labor risks large-scale erosion of supporters on the left if the violence and the tough stance continue.

Today Rabin sought to emphasize that he saw the imposition of order as only a first step and that negotiations must follow.

"We can use our force to maintain tranquillity, but not to achieve a political solution of the conflict," Rabin said. "By no means do I pretend that by force we can solve it politically. Politically it can be solved only by negotiations.

"We have to make it clear to the Arab world, to the Palestinians and to the international community that {while} we cannot solve it by military means only, they cannot solve it by violence or terror or wars."

But he said Israel's problem remains that it has no acceptable entity to negotiate with. With the exception of Egypt, no Arab government has stepped forward for peace talks, and Israel refuses to consider talks with Yasser Arafat's PLO, which Rabin contends remains dedicated to Israel's destruction.

Local leaders in the occupied territories have not proven ready to negotiate a settlement because of intimidation, according to Rabin. He said that since becoming defense minister in 1984 he had held at least a dozen meetings with Palestinians of various political persuasions, including some PLO supporters and some who back Jordan's King Hussein. He said he asked them, "Are you ready to be the masters of your own fate and future? Are you ready to be the partners for negotiations with us?"

"Many of them told me, 'If we dare to do so, we will be eliminated,' " Rabin contended.

But he said he saw some hope in the possible emergence of new leaders from the latest round of violence. The PLO, he said, had been as surprised by the outbreak as had the Israelis and from the beginning had been "on the tail of events, not in the lead of them."

"For the first time the population of the territories has taken the lead in the struggle for the Palestinian case," said Rabin.

"The people who started it did not wait for any outside help," he said. "Maybe they cling to the PLO as a symbol but I hope that once the dust will settle down they will be strong enough to be the masters of their own fate, and they'll realize that through violence they'll achieve nothing, and they will be ready to negotiate."