WASHINGTON — THE PALESTINIAN revolt against Israeli occupation has crossed a Rubicon of blood. This week's murders of unsuspecting Jews will almost certainly lead to slaughter on both sides if Palestinian and Jewish leaders fail to stop the momentum in this escalation.
The order by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to temporarily bar West Bank and Gaza Arabs from Israel was a desperate but pragmatic act after the murders of unarmed Palestinians by gun-packing Jews exacting vigilante ''justice'' for the slayings of the Israelis.
Mr. Shamir, himself a former terrorist and organizer of the assassination of a U.N. diplomat more than 40 years ago, can smell disaster and wants to avert it. Yasser Arafat and his cronies refined terror and made it international less than 25 years ago. Mr. Arafat, too, knows that the stage is being set for the killing of hundreds of innocents, but he is silent, unless you count the sound of his tongue shining Saddam Hussein's boots.
Those who killed the unarmed Jews in recent days were responding to a call for such action by elements of the PLO and by Hamas, a fundamentalist Islamic group whose influence on the West Bank and in Gaza is on the rise.
The murderous Arabs used hammers and knives to avenge the shooting of 21 Arab stone throwers during a clash with Israeli police. There is reason to believe knives will soon be replaced by guns and bombs.
As innocents are slain on both sides, more Arabs and Jews will be radicalized into still more violence. Extremists will mock their own religions by claiming they are doing God's work. In Arabic and Hebrew, the thunder of hollow righteousness will be deafening as the body count mounts. This horror would serve the needs of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, whose short-term mission is to crack the U.S.-Arab alliance arrayed against him.
That mission is clearly aided by the sudden eruption of violence between Arab and Jew. Like some grotesque political vampire, Mr. Hussein feeds off the blood of the combatants. The Iraqi dictator knows that this bitter season of inter-religious murder in Israel, which his propaganda helped to create, pushes the anti-Western buttons of the Arab nations joining in the U.S. boycott of Iraq. Every new Palestinian casualty in Israel is a symbolic soldier in Mr. Hussein's psy-war against the leaders of Egypt, Syria and the other Arab countries who have been demanding that he retreat from Kuwait. Mr. Hussein knows that if wholesale violence erupts between Arab and Jew in the occupied territories and Israel, much of the world will pay little attention to his final looting of Kuwait's infrastructure.
The almost three-year Palestinian intifada always carried the seeds of widespread, chaotic mayhem. By training and encouraging teen-agers to throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli police and troops who mostly did not shoot to kill, the leaders of the uprising deliberately conditioned the kids to believe that they would confront the Jews and probably survive.
Now comes the call for individual acts of terror, which by themselves can plunge Israel and the occupied territories into a long night of carnage. Mr. Hussein has been pushing for that as the ultimate smoke screen behind which he apparently hopes to complete his robbery, rape and murder of Kuwait. Unless this countdown to horror is stopped, the Butcher of Baghdad will see the anti-Iraq alliance crack along the cultural and religious fault line and he will have an opportunity to try to spin the crisis into a fresh but old direction: Arab vs. Jew.
That is a nightmare President Bush may not be able to ward off. One indication of how uncontrolled the situation threatens to become is that Mr. Bush decided to make public that he sent a special letter to Mr. Shamir. It is a personal appeal, asking the Israeli government to reverse its position and help the U.N. inquiry into the Temple Mount incident.
Mr. Bush has placed his prestige on the line in this. But the situation on the ground is rapidly deteriorating and Israeli participation in the U.N. investigation might have little impact on enraged Palestinians and their Jewish counterparts who already appear bent on tearing the life from one another.
Only the powerful intervention of leaders of conscience in the Palestinian and Israeli communities has even a slim chance of warding off disaster. Such still small voices exist but they must risk assassination to be heard and there is no guarantee that anyone is in a mood to listen.
Mr. Kamen is a journalist and co-author of ''Final Warning: ? Averting Disaster in the New Age of Terrorism.'' 1