As threat from Iraq seems to ebb, Israelis fear violence closer to home WAR IN THE GULF

February 02, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

TEL AVIV, Israel -- Israel enters the next phase of the war alert for sounds of closer danger than far-off Iraq.

After 18 days, the worst of the doomsday Iraqi scenarios seem increasingly unlikely: Saddam Hussein has not used chemical weapons, and he has not sent forces directly to attack Israel.

While analysts say either action might still be attempted by a desperate Iraqi president, Israel has settled uneasily on a policy of staying out of the war if there is no escalation beyond periodic missiles.

But while the direct danger from Iraq may be ebbing, the threats closer to home may be more volatile. On two fronts -- the occupied territories and southern Lebanon -- Palestinian unrest could present violent new problems for Israel.

For four days, rocket attacks from southern Lebanon have been launched against northern Israel and its Lebanese "security zone." There have been no casualties on the Israeli side, but Israel's artillery bombardment in reply reportedly has caused fatalities in Palestinian refugee settlements.

Such attacks have been sporadic over the years. But Israeli authorities say they have evidence that these assaults, the heaviest in five years, are now being carried out by the Palestine Liberation Organization on direct orders from Iraq.

If Yasser Arafat's main Fatah PLO faction is involved, it would be the first such violence by his group in two years and would indicate that the PLO is trying to engage Israel in the war, Israeli officials say.

Potentially more dangerous is the possibility of an explosion in the occupied territories. Every day the question looms larger of how long Israel can keep the West Bank and Gaza Strip under curfew.

The population of 1.7 million -- nearly as many people as in metropolitan Baltimore -- has been under virtual house arrest since the war began, cut off from jobs, schools, doctors, friends and neighbors.

Israel has refused to face the question, apparently satisfied with the relative quiet imposed by the tight clampdown. The statements of Israeli officials have fed Palestinian fears that the army may try to keep the curfew on for the duration of the war, possibly months.

Brig. Gen Nachman Shai, the chief military spokesman, said that "if we figure out the Palestinians . . . don't plan to break against Israel in disorder, disturbances and riots, I believe we will be able to raise the curfew shortly."

That was 14 days ago.

Thursday, the chief army administrator for the territories seemed to impose an even larger requirement of political submission.

"The residents there are still supporting Saddam Hussein," said Brig. Gen Freddy Zach. "We are in a time of war. We are dealing with inhabitants and residents that are supporting the enemy.

"Without the curfew, we would face a lot of violence, demonstrations, killing and terrorism," he said. "In a time of war, there is no room to experiment."

But the continued curfew further embitters Palestinians against Israel and its allies.

"I have 8-year-old twin daughters. After two weeks of this curfew, they hardly talk to each other anymore," said Saeb Erakat, a college teacher in Jericho. "They just yell at each other.

"They used to respect their father. Now they don't even know I am here. They hear the sirens and see the television telling them to put on gas masks. How can I explain to little children why the Israelis have gas masks but they won't give them to us?" he asked.

"Israel is waging a full-fledged war, an economic war, on the Palestinians," said Mr. Erakat. "And from all these [Western] leaders concerned about Kuwait there is not one word of protest. They do not see us. They do not see there are children and pregnant women here. Then they ask why are we not sad about what happens to the Israelis."

Reports from the occupied territories indicate growing shortages. Although the army lifts the curfew in selected towns for a few hours every few days to allow residents to restock supplies, Palestinians are running out of money to buy goods.

They have not had a paycheck in weeks, and the impact is felt on both sides. The Israeli construction industry, heavily dependant on Arab labor, has ground to a standstill. Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, desperate to keep building houses for new Soviet immigrants, asked the Knesset for permission to import 10,000 foreign workers but was denied.

General Zach acknowledged that "it is difficult to be under a curfew. I am aware we cannot continue the curfew forever." He said some restrictions have been eased. Some farmers have been given passes to tend livestock and harvest citrus.

The European Community has donated $8 million in food for the territories, and U.N. workers are being allowed to distribute it, he said.

"I assure you there is not any hunger or starvation," he said.

But Maher Nasser, an official of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said the curfew has halted health care and education programs and left residents of the occupied territories increasingly desperate.

"We are receiving frantic calls from people saying they have run out of money and they don't know what to do," he said. "They have families and they don't have the money for food or milk or money for heating oil. We might reach a situation where people will just break the curfew because they have nothing in the house."

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