JERUSALEM -- The hunt for suspected militants sent Sgt. Lirom Hakkak bashing his way through a wall into a Palestinian family's threadbare living room, his slender frame sweating under nearly 35 pounds of body armor and combat gear, his M-16 rifle ready.
He noticed the grandmother first, her creased face so blanched with terror that she appeared on the verge of collapse. A middle-aged couple huddled close by, trembling.
Troops from the 202nd Paratrooper Battalion are briefed before a raid aimed at detaining a suspected Palestinian militant in the West Bank city of Nablus.
(Ilan Mizrahi For The Washington Post)
"They could be my parents," Hakkak, the 22-year-old son of an Israeli poet, recalled thinking. In that split second of recognition, he said, "you really feel disgusting. You see these people and you know the majority of them are innocent and you're taking away their rights. You also know you must do it."
With the Israel Defense Forces in the fourth year of battle with the Palestinians, the most dominant institution in Israeli society is also embroiled in a struggle over its own character, according to dozens of interviews with soldiers, officers, reservists and some of the nation's preeminent military analysts.
Officers and soldiers have begun publicly criticizing specific tactics that they consider dehumanizing to both their own troops and Palestinians. And while they do not question the need to prevent terrorist acts against Israelis, military officials and soldiers are speaking out with increasing frequency against a strategy that they say has forsaken negotiation and relied almost exclusively on military force to address the conflict.
Nearly 600 members of the armed forces have signed statements refusing to serve in the Palestinian territories. Active-duty and reserve personnel are criticizing the military in public. Parents of soldiers are speaking out as well, complaining that the protection of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is not worth the loss of their sons and daughters.
Such issues are being debated at the highest levels of Israel's political and military leadership. At the end of last month, the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, told columnists from Israel's three leading newspapers that the road closures, curfews and roadblocks imposed on the Palestinian civilians were creating explosive levels of "hatred and terrorism" among the populace. Last week four former heads of the Shin Bet domestic security service said the government's actions and policies during the Palestinian uprising had gravely damaged Israel and its people.
While such public comments have infuriated Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a former general who favors stringent measures against the Palestinians, they reflect the anxieties of many active-duty soldiers and reservists over whether the military is provoking more terrorist attacks than it is preventing. In addition, members of the armed forces said they feared that some of the harsher tactics -- especially assassinations of suspected Palestinian militants, which often also cause civilian deaths -- are corrupting Israeli soldiers, and by extension, Israeli society.
"What's happening is terrible," said retired Brig. Gen. Nehemia Dagan, former chief of education for the armed services. "The ethics and morals of Israeli society are more important than killing the heads of Hamas or Islamic Jihad."
"It's a difficult type of war. It's harder to uphold ethics," said Asa Kasher, a professor of military studies at Tel Aviv University who is rewriting the armed forces' code of ethics, which he first wrote nine years ago. "There are no books on moral regulations for fighting terror."
While Kasher said he does not believe the core values of the Israeli military have changed, this conflict has "put people into utterly new situations -- whether it's a private at a checkpoint or the chief of staff."
"Even my friends who are Jewish think what the army is doing is wrong," said a 20-year-old first sergeant, Noam, who is a sniper in the 202nd Paratrooper Battalion. Israeli military officials requested that the full names of active-duty soldiers not be printed for fear that they could be subject to prosecution for war crimes in countries that oppose Israel's actions in the Palestinian territories. Noam said he has told his friends: "I'm not killing anyone for no reason. I'm doing this because I have to do it."
At the same time, many other soldiers assert they are proud of what they have done. For much of this year, Dor, a shy 19-year-old medical officer, was based with the paratroops near the West Bank city of Nablus. He was only 27 miles from his home in Netanya, an Israeli seaside city that has been the target of six suicide bombings since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.
"You think of your girlfriend sitting in a cafe, and it makes things here more personal, more relevant," Dor said. "When you stop a bomber, you feel good about yourself."