TULKARM, JAN. 7 -- Lt. Col. Hillel pulled up his jeep beside a group of small Palestinian boys who looked about 10 years old. As dusk fell today, they were hanging out outside a candy store on the main street next to the refugee camp here in this town on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. When they saw him, they reacted with a few shy smiles.
"Those are the guys," he said. "They throw a few stones, and they run into the alley. For them it's a big game, the best game in town."
But for Hillel and his men, members of one of Israel's elite paratroop units, this is no game. They have been trained to jump from airplanes and to fight Israel's next war from the land and the sky. Yet here in this town of 15,000 and in countless other Arab communities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, they and their brethren are serving as riot police in a different kind of war, one far more complex and frustrating and one that has some of them talking almost nostalgically of the simpler combat days of the invasion of Lebanon.
"We're not used to this," said Capt. Udi, Hillel's deputy. "This is not part of our normal jobs. The whole situation is quite embarrassing for us because we are trained for different purposes. But at the moment we're like police. For us it isn't a fair fight."
In Gaza, where confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians have been more violent than on the West Bank, U.N. officials said today that one Palestinian was killed and seven injured when Israeli soldiers fired at a crowd in the Maghazi refugee camp. Witnesses said the crowd had gathered after someone in a mosque broadcast a call for a holy war against Israel. Israeli officials said seven Palestinians had been wounded but there was no immediate Israeli statement on the reported death.
Here on the West Bank, a visiting U.S. senator, John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), ran into youthful stone-throwers today. They chased Chafee and his party -- staff members, a U.N. relief worker, a political officer from the U.S. Consulate and journalists -- from the grounds of the Kalandia refugee camp north of Jerusalem. There were no injuries reported.
During the wave of violence that has wracked the occupied territories for the past month, senior Army officials said they have felt victimized by events: asked to perform a difficult, even impossible, task under intense criticism from the media and the world. In recent days, the Army has begun granting requests by foreign correspondents to interview and accompany soldiers in an attempt to balance the picture. Under military ground rules, soldiers can be identified only by their first names.
The Army's mission is simple enough: to restore and maintain order in the territories. But the players are different and the rules more complicated than those the soldiers were trained for.
The enemy is not the Syrian Army but groups of little boys such as the ones Hillel singled out. They pelt his paratroopers with rocks and bottles, set up barricades of burning tires and debris, block traffic and stone Israeli vehicles and the shops of Arab merchants who dare to open for business.
Hillel's men have certain weapons to use against the youths. They can fire tear gas and rubber bullets, they can make arrests, they can even impose a curfew and force people to stay inside their homes and miss work or school. But they can't use the weapons they know best: their guns.
At least 24 Palestinians have died since the violence began Dec. 9 and 180 have been wounded by Israeli gunfire. Each death has heightened international condemnation of Israel, and Army officials said most of the shootings have inflamed rioters rather than quelled the violence. And so the soldiers are under strict orders not to fire unless their lives are in imminent danger.
For nearly two weeks, no one was shot on the West Bank, and soldiers fired only into the air. Then last Sunday, a soldier shot dead an Arab woman in a town near Jerusalem. The soldier and his commander were immediately suspended by the West Bank commander, Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna, who called the shooting a mistake. No one has opened fire against rioters in the West Bank since then -- a marked contrast to the Gaza Strip, where soldiers have opened fire in at least four incidents this week, reportedly killing two people.
"This gun is like a decoration," said Capt. Udi. "I have orders not to use it -- and the people here know it."
Tulkarm is normally a sleepy town just over the pre-1967 border from Israel proper and less than 10 miles from the Mediterranean. It is closer to Israeli cities than to those of the West Bank, and its residents do much of their shopping in Netanya and Haifa, send some of their children to Haifa University and go to the hospital there when they need treatment.
But like the rest of the region, it too has exploded in violence in recent weeks. When Hillel's unit came here 10 days ago, it was faced with a commercial strike by shopowners and daily confrontations with stone-throwers. Things calmed down near the end of last week, but flared up again after Sunday's shooting death and Israel's announcement that it plans to expel nine Palestinian activists from the occupied territories.
Many of these paratroopers have done patrol duty before in the Gaza Strip and in Bethlehem. The difference this time, they said, is that the rioters are younger -- ranging from 8 to 14, they contended -- and that many women also are involved.
Sgt. Nizan, who is 21, described the look he saw in the face of a small boy, perhaps 10 or 11, during a round of stone throwing yesterday. "He hates you," recounted Nizan. "You see it when he's looking at you. You see it in his eyes, and it's enough to know he hates you, and he wants to hurt you and that's all. Of course, if I were him, I would feel the same."
Older Arabs look different to Nizan. "Maybe they hate me also, but I don't see it in their faces," he said.
The soldiers said tear gas and rubber bullets are ineffective as weapons; the rioters melt away only to regroup elsewhere within minutes. Sometimes, said Capt. Udi, his men are reduced to throwing back the same stones that the rioters throw at them.
Sometimes psychological tactics work better. Udi said that during trouble at a school this morning, he grabbed one of the older male students, confiscated his identity card and ordered him to have teachers clear the grounds. When the students had left, Udi returned the card. That cleared the school, but the youths quickly started up again a few blocks away.
Sometimes nothing works. Hillel said his unit backed off from patrolling earlier in the week after older residents said things would calm down if the soldiers went away. But the youths interpreted their disappearance as an admission of defeat and tried to block a highway. The soldiers returned.
Despite the frustrations, Hillel said, he and his men are convinced that most Tulkarm residents want the Army's presence to keep things under control.
"I'm not very happy that I'm here, but I have no doubt that the average Arab wants us," he said. "They want a normal life, and we can provide them with it. We are the only ones who can."
Tulkarm looked calm today. Despite sporadic incidents, the schools and shops were open and the central marketplace was filled with shoppers. But the soldiers said things can suddenly turn ugly with no warning.
Yesterday, three Arab men stopped a military vehicle here and one of them pulled out a large knife. He opened the door on the passenger side and slashed at a soldier, injuring her hand. The driver, an officer, shot the man in the shoulder and sped off under a hail of stones.
Within minutes, word of the incident spread through town. Shopkeepers closed up, and youths poured out of schools. Confrontations between the soldiers and the stone-throwers began again.
"It was like a ghost town on the streets," said Hillel. "So we came through and ordered the shops to reopen."
Most days, Hillel said, the shopkeepers want to reopen and rely on the soldiers for protection. They go through an elaborate charade, with soldiers arriving with acetylene torches and threatening to weld shut the doors of those who do not open. "I do some yelling, the shopkeepers complain, we all make a lot of noise and then they open up," he said.
But yesterday was different. The merchants were afraid to open, and Hillel ordered his men to weld 10 shops shut, he said. Then the rest gave in and opened.
Hillel also slapped a curfew on the refugee camp that abuts Tulkarm on the east. His objective, he said, was to keep parents from going to work in the hope that they would then force their children to behave. That tactic seemed to work and today when he lifted the curfew, things remained tranquil.
Days such as yesterday have made Hillel, 31, long for the simpler days of combat such as the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, he said. He said he and his men actually felt safer in Lebanon, where the mission was straightforward and they could use their guns when necessary.
Still, he said, he agrees with his orders, and shooting children would be a disaster, something he and his men could not do. So they patrol the streets, wait for the stones and continue playing a waiting game.
"When people in America read the newspapers or watch television, they must think there is murder in our eyes," said Hillel, whose home is in an Israeli cooperative farm about 10 miles from here. "But I've got two kids, and I'm fighting children not much older than they are.
"How should I feel? I think about it as a soldier. I think about it as a father. I prefer not to be here, but it is my mission, so I am here."