He was 14 when he threw his first stones at an Israeli. He was still 14 when he first saw the inside of an Israeli prison in the occupied West Bank, an experience the man who calls himself Nasser Ibrahim has repeated 11 times.
Now 23, he is a leader of Palestinian youths in one of the West Bank refugee camps where younger Palestinians, some born since the Israeli occupation began in 1967, also throw stones at Israeli civilian and military vehicles.
Nasser Ibrahim is not his real name. One day recently he and three younger Palestinians agreed to talk to a reporter provided that their real names and the name of their refugee camp not be disclosed.
Each has a brother or other relative serving a life prison sentence for various acts of violence against the Israelis. Each admits to throwing stones at the Israelis--soldiers and civilians alike--and each says he or she will go on doing it. The stones, they say, make them part of the Palestine Liberation Organization's "armed struggle" against the Israeli occupation.
These young Palestinians, and others like them among the West Bank's Arab population of 800,000, confront Israel with a severe problem, both immediately and in the longer run. The immediate problem is evident, this spring as in the past, in the cities and along the highways of the West Bank.
In the first two weeks of March, according to a military spokesman, 31 people have been injured, most of them lightly, in rock-throwing and other incidents in the West Bank. They included 11 Israeli civilians, 14 soldiers, two local police officers, two tourists and two Arab residents.
The longer term problem, troubling to Israelis who oppose their government's determination to maintain control of the West Bank, and with it the task of controlling its Arab population, was voiced recently in blunt terms by Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan, the Israeli Army's outgoing chief of staff.
Eitan is a strong advocate of the government's policy, believing that retention of the West Bank is vital to Israel's security. But in an interview with the independent newspaper Haaretz last week, he said Israelis should have no illusions about the future.
"Whoever thinks that the Arab violence against us will cease at any time is dreaming false dreams," Eitan said. "My wife was traveling in a bus in Wadi Ara--she always goes only by bus--and they threw stones at them. This is their war. One time it's a baton, another time a stone."
"We can do several things about the stone throwers," the chief of staff continued. "Open fire and kill the children; not travel through the territories; or we can be rational as Jews, catch the stone throwers, punish them in such a way that it will not be worthwhile to throw any more stones . . . We must create a situation which will restrain them from throwing stones. "But in any case, we will always have to live with a certain degree of Arab violence."
Sitting together in the living room of a small home in one of the refugee camps, the four young Palestinians agree with Eitan that it is their war and that stones are their weapons.
"The Palestinian people are very strong," said a primly dressed young woman of 18 who shall be called Hiam Issa here. "The Jews beat us only because they have guns. If we had guns we would be stronger than Israel."
She said she makes no distinction between the Jewish settlers who have moved to the West Bank and other Israelis.
"There isn't much difference," she said. "They're all here to kill us and take our land. It's a strategy of the government."
Siham Mohammed, the youngest of the four at 13, has the beguiling smile of a girl just entering adolescence. But she calls the Israelis "dogs" and speaks with the apparent fearlessness of the young.
"We have stones and the Jews have their guns," she said. "Even though they have guns, they are afraid of us. If we had guns, we could kill them all."
Mohammed Ahmed, 14, appears to be a typically shy teen-ager. When he was younger, he said, "I used to see Israelis with guns beating people and I started to think about it . . . Armed struggle is the only way to liberate our land."
According to a West Bank resident who knows them and translated their Arabic comments into English, the four Palestinians are not untypical of the young residents of the refugee camp. Despite the PLO's defeat in Lebanon, there has been no decline in their devotion to the organization or its leader, Yasser Arafat.
Hiam Issa said she believes the PLO will triumph over Israel within 12 years, when she will be 30. Even if the PLO and Arafat remain scattered across the Arab world, "there will be another strong one here," she said.
Although dozens of Arabs have been killed or wounded in West Bank demonstrations over the years, none of the four admitted to any fear. They throw stones at the Israeli soldiers who regularly patrol their refugee camp, they said, scampering to safety down the narrow streets of the camp. Or they pelt a nearby highway with rocks, looking always for vehicles with the familiar yellow Israeli license tags.
Except for Nasser Ibrahim, the oldest, none of them has ever really known an Israeli. Nasser Ibrahim said he once had a friend who belonged to Israel's Communist Party, but no longer knows where he is.