A member of the Israeli Cabinet proposed Sunday that the strife-torn Gaza Strip be turned over to the Palestine Liberation Organization as the first step in the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Yossi Sarid, leader of the dovish Meretz bloc and environment minister in the coalition government, went well beyond previous calls for Israeli withdrawal from the troublesome region to argue that Gaza could become a political catapult that would hasten resolution of the Palestinian question.
Starting with the desire of many Israelis to withdraw from Gaza and contending that political power must indeed be handed over to its 750,000 residents, Sarid asserted, "The Palestinian side will not take Gaza unless Gaza is recognized from the outset as the beginning of the Palestinian state and unless the PLO leadership is allowed to be there.
"If we don't do this, the Gaza Strip will continue to be stuck in the throat of Israel like a painful bone," Sarid warned, recalling the half-dozen fatal attacks on Israelis in the region so far this year and the equal number of assaults by Gazans on Jews within Israel in recent months.
But if the PLO assumes power in Gaza, then its "leadership will have to contend with and eliminate terrorism," Sarid added, urging the acceleration of the now-stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks on autonomy and an advance from the static position that Jerusalem has had up to now.
"Israel is not interested in governing Gaza and will hand Gaza over, as quickly as possible, but only in the framework of a (peace) agreement and not unilaterally," Sarid said as he emerged from the weekly Cabinet meeting. "In order to give up Gaza, we need someone to take it, but no one other than the Palestinians will accept it. . . .
"We will have to discuss all this with the PLO leadership in Gaza, both the essence of autonomy and then their permanent status."
The upsurge in violence in the Gaza Strip--the killing of six Israelis there so far this year, including a 45-year-old woman on Friday--brought calls from other ministers for an Israeli withdrawal, and Immigration Minister Yair Tsaban, another Meretz leader, urged the government to open immediate and direct negotiations with the PLO to hasten a settlement.
With Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the United States for talks today with President Clinton, political discipline within his often-fractious Cabinet broke down faster than usual after its regular Sunday morning meeting.
Trying to calm the mounting panic among Israelis after a dozen deaths in the past three months, the Cabinet called in a statement for people "to maintain composure . . . and self-control."
Zeev Schiff, one of the country's top military analysts, wrote in the influential newspaper Haaretz earlier Sunday that the recent attacks constitute "one of the most serious waves of terror in the history of the (Israeli) state."
"The Arabs are saying that now, not only do the Palestinians in the (occupied) territories have a sense of fear, but the Israelis do as well," Schiff said. "A substantive change is taking effect among Israelis. The general feeling, which the military shares, is that there has been a drop in the Israeli deterrent capability against Palestinian terror."
But ministers then fiercely debated the wisdom of the recommendation on Friday by Yaakov Terner, the outgoing national police commissioner, that all 300,000 Israelis licensed to carry guns--only a fifth of whom are believed to have adequate training--keep their weapons with them at all times to respond to terrorist attacks on the street.
"We need to calm the public, not alarm them into carrying weapons," Education Minister Shulamit Aloni, another Meretz leader, said. "Everybody knows that the minute you have hysteria, as we do now, people stop being responsible for what they are doing."
Justice Minister David Libai, Labor Minister Ora Namir and Transportation Minister Yisrael Kessar, all members of Rabin's Labor Party, also castigated Terner for adding to the widespread fears.
The only fatality on Sunday was a 3-year-old Palestinian girl who was shot by soldiers when her father, driving the family car, did a U-turn at an unexpected roadblock in the West Bank city of Hebron. A military spokesman said the father had ignored warnings to halt before the soldiers opened fire.