THE MASSACRE last Friday of dozens of Palestinian worshipers by a Jewish settler urgently requires a strong and dramatic reaction. Condolences, apology and condemnation as expressed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin are not sufficient, nor are investigations.
The Israeli government, which under international law is responsible for the safety of the 2 million Palestinians in the occupied territories, has no choice but to disarm the paramilitary units of Jewish settlers.
The slaughter at the Ibrahim Mosque in the West Bank town of Hebron, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, was an act of a religiously fanatical gunman. Baruch Goldstein was an American Jew who emigrated to Israel 11 years ago to follow Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League in New York and the radical Kach party in Israel.
Before being murdered in 1990 by Muslim fundamentalists, Kahane had developed a small following that advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Israel. The massacre perpetrated by Goldstein on Friday, however, is rooted in a larger psychological environment, created by the hatred, physical harassment and low regard shown by leaders of the settler movement to their Palestinian neighbors.
The majority of the 130,000 Jews who live in more than 100 rural and urban communities in the West Bank are peace-seeking and law-abiding citizens. Most of them are secular families who settled in the West Bank for economic and social reasons.
They were attracted by the cheap subsidized housing offered by right-wing Likud governments and by the desire for "life quality." It is even assumed that most of the settlers are receptive to the peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization and ready to leave their homes if they are properly compensated.
Nevertheless, they have been a silent majority, allowing themselves to be represented by leaders vociferously opposed to the peace negotiations. These leaders -- political organizers and their spiritual rabbis -- are mainly motivated by Jewish religious zealotry that very much resembles Iranian-based Muslim fundamentalism.
A decade ago, these leaders inspired and encouraged the organization of secret cells. The cells, known as the "Jewish underground," were involved in assassination attempts against
Palestinian mayors, terrorist attacks on Muslim students and a conspiracy to blow up mosques in Jerusalem.
Eventually, even the Likud government could no longer turn a blind eye to their deeds and plots, and in May 1984 it ordered Israel's security services to crack down on the Jewish underground. Members were arrested, charged and sentenced to jail by Israeli courts. But their leaders, the inciters, were untouched and remained free to continue with their agenda against the Palestinians.
Instead of re-creating the underground, the settler leaders now concentrate on organizing their supporters in paramilitary groups. The organization that Baruch Goldstein belonged to is considered too extreme even in the eyes of most right-wing settlers.
The real problem, however, is with the so-called mainstream settlers' movement, which encourages the formation of these citizen armies. Their members serve in the Israeli Defense Force as reservists and are armed to the teeth. Their weapons come from army stores and are to be used only for self-defense. They are also highly disciplined and ready to sacrifice their lives on the altar of the cause.
Although they have no official warrant, they "patrol" the streets of Palestinian communities and the roads that connect them. And they do not hesitate to take the law into their hands, avenging the murders of Jewish settlers by storming houses in the middle of the night and killing Palestinians.
Israel's security services, which have been so successful in tracking Palestinian terrorists, have done nothing to stop the Jewish paramilitary. Cabinet ministers and military commanders believed that they could control and tame the settlers.
Friday's tragedy demonstrates that pacifying terrorists is counterproductive and costly. The Israeli government has to dismantle the settlers' paramilitary squads. Such a step will be supported by the majority of Israelis who wish to see the peace negotiations brought to fruition. It may even be accepted by most settlers as politically inevitable.
Providing security to all people, regardless of their race or religion, is solely the responsibility of the government. It should not be in the hands of vigilantes who, because of the authorities' past inaction, have come to see themselves as being above the law.
If the Israeli government does not act now and quickly, the consequences will be dire. Not only the already delayed implementation of the Israeli-PLO peace accord will be jeopardized. The very nature of Israel as a free, lawful and democratic society will be threatened.
Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist, is co-author of "Friends in Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israeli Alliance," to be published soon by Hyperion.