For the first time in more than seven weeks of unrest in the occupied territories, Israeli officials have undertaken a series of conciliatory moves toward the Palestinian residents meant to demonstrate an alternative to the army's "iron fist" policy.
The moves include gestures that range from the release Thursday and Friday of about 100 imprisoned demonstrators in the Gaza Strip to a planned U.S. visit within the next few days by a senior Defense Ministry official carrying new proposals for a joint Israeli-American program to improve the "quality of life" in the territories.
Government sources confirmed the initiative in interviews Friday. They stressed that it is not expected to solve fundamental economic and political problems in the areas.
"We hope it will contribute to calming the climate," a defense official said. "But if you think that these kinds of measures are going to solve any problem, I think you're mistaken. We don't think so."
The measures do appear to represent a rare agreement on policy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by the often-warring halves of Israel's coalition government--the rightist Likud Bloc of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the more centrist Labor Alignment of Shimon Peres, vice prime minister and foreign minister.
"Here there is a consensus," a senior government official said, "to improve and to do something that would be seen and accepted as an Israeli willingness to improve living conditions."
Flurry of Diplomacy
The conciliatory moves in the territories coincide with a flurry of diplomatic activity in the search for a comprehensive Middle East peace.
A Foreign Ministry official confirmed Friday that Peres' political adviser, Nimrod Novik, has left for the United States and Canada, where he is expected to meet with Egyptian and U.S. officials regarding the peace process. Earlier this month, Novik met with a senior Soviet official in Helsinki, Finland.
His new mission follows a statement Thursday by President Reagan and visiting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that it is important to rejuvenate the Arab-Israeli peace process. But the two leaders reportedly differed on how to proceed.
Shamir's Cabinet secretary, Elyakim Rubinstein, who returned Thursday from a separate visit to Washington at U.S. invitation, was reported by the Jerusalem Post on Friday to have briefed the prime minister on new American proposals.
Moscow's Cooperation Sought
According to the Jerusalem Post, the United States is seeking Moscow's agreement for talks in which Israel and a combined Jordanian-Palestinian delegation would negotiate an interim arrangement in the territories.
Shamir is due in Washington on a state visit in mid-March, and his spokesman, Avi Pazner, said he will take with him proposals to "accelerate" his offer of limited Palestinian autonomy.
At best, the flurry of diplomatic activity can be expected to yield results only slowly, analysts here said. And it may not lead anywhere at all, at least until after the elections in November in both the United States and Israel.
The program of conciliatory gestures in the territories is thus seen here as something to help fill the gap.
100 Prisoners to Be Freed
Israel Radio reported Friday that Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai, the commander whose territory includes the Gaza Strip, had ordered the release of about 100 prisoners held in connection with disturbances there. It said the action was in response to requests from local Palestinian leaders, and that the officer had promised other forms of assistance to Gaza residents "on condition that the relative quiet in the area will continue."
Israeli officials have also delayed the planned deportation of five Palestinians accused of having helped foment the recent unrest in the territories. The deportation of four other Palestinians, on Jan. 3, is widely believed to have triggered a second wave of disturbances in which 12 of the 36 known victims of the unrest were killed. The other 24 died in the December rioting or later of wounds received in December.
The five designated deportees had appealed their expulsion orders but then dropped the appeals, clearing the way for their immediate deportation. Now, a Cabinet minister has suggested publicly that the expulsion orders be canceled. In any event, a government official said, to expel them now, amid signs that the situation is calming down, "would be a major stupidity."
To Boost Immigration
A security source with responsibilities throughout the occupied territories said that Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin has ordered an increase in the number of Palestinians permitted to return permanently to the West Bank and Gaza Strip to rejoin their families.
The source said the exact size of the increase is not certain. But he said that 1,200 Palestinians were allowed to return in 1987, and that as recently as the early 1980s between 2,000 and 3,000 a year returned.
In another move, the military authorities approved up to 500 permits this week for construction of houses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"It means that we are going to be more liberal in checking the formal legality of the buildings that (the residents) are building," the source said.
The planned U.S. visit by a senior defense official was scheduled before the recent unrest. However, the security source said, "the last disturbances only strengthened our opinion that we should do anything within our capabilities to recruit foreign assistance to the inhabitants in the territories. And this is exactly what (the defense official) is going to do there."
Foreign governments and relief organizations now contribute about $100 million a year to the occupied territories, according to the source, but to make more than symbolic improvements much more is needed.
"Only a big amount of money can do it," he said, "and a big amount of money must come from outside because our resources are limited.
"The minister of defense has said himself more than once that we welcome any kind of foreign assistance, including from Arab countries, provided only that this assistance will not encourage hostile elements inside the territories and it will be coordinated with us. By coordinated I don't mean that we insist on being the channel through which this assistance will come. Not at all. We only want to keep in the picture, because after all we are responsible for what is going on here."
Israeli Interference Charged
Relief organizations trying to fund development projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip frequently complain that the Israeli authorities use their veto power to direct money away from individuals and groups they find politically distasteful and toward those that will collaborate.