JERUSALEM, JAN. 28 -- The general in charge of Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank said today he and his troops are deeply troubled by the riot duty they have been assigned during the current Palestinian protests and the mission is hampering the Army's principal task of defending Israel's borders.
In an extraordinary hour-long press conference that swung widely from defensiveness to introspection, Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna told foreign correspondents that many of the recent Arab complaints of brutality by his troops were "just imagination."
He nonetheless conceded that some of his men had used excessive force in carrying out the government's announced policy of beating Arab rioters and said "a few" had been disciplined and that others were being investigated.
But Mitzna's most revealing remarks concerned the discomfort that he said he and his men feel over their mission. "I don't feel so well when I wake up in the morning," he said. Dealing with Palestinian civilians instead of a recognizable military enemy was "confusing" and "difficult," he said, adding, "I was not trained, I was not educated to deal with such problems, but I am learning."
Although he cautioned Israel's Arab foes not to test the Army's military readiness, he said he believed that his troops were wasting time that would be better spent in training for future warfare. "What they are doing here is not just a waste of time but also is damaging something. It is very naive to think it is not like this," he said.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, where residents allege that some of the units under Mitzna's command used brutal tactics earlier this week against a commercial strike, soldiers again forced open shops with crowbars and sledgehammers in a ritual that has become part of daily life there.
Mitzna said the last 10 days have brought relative quiet to the region. But the explosive confrontations of the first weeks of rioting appear to have been replaced by a grinding routine of strikes, forced openings and occasional skirmishes.
Leaflets appeared today calling for the strike to continue. They were signed by the outlawed Palestine Liberation Organization and the Unified National Committee for the Uprising, a clandestine steering committee that informed Palestinian and Israeli military sources say is made up of activists from PLO factions, the Palestinian Communist Party and Islamic Jihad, a Moslem fundamentalist movement.
The group, the leaflet shows, is attempting to direct the protest actions that apparently began spontaneously in early December and have resulted in at least 38 Palestinian deaths and hundreds of injuries. No Israelis have been killed in the disturbances.
Israel has come under severe international criticism in recent days for the beating policy enunciated last week by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Mitzna's appearance today -- the first time a senior military commander has held an on-the-record press conference since the violence began -- was a clear attempt to counter the image portrayed abroad of the ugly Israeli soldier.
Mitzna, 42, a kibbutz resident, is considered by many officials to be the more acceptable face of the Israeli Army. He gained national attention when he stepped down as head of the military staff and command school in 1982 to protest the massacres of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militiamen at two Beirut refugee camps at the time of the Israeli invasion of Beirut. He has a reputation for candor and credibility.
Press reports and eyewitness accounts in recent days have described dozens of incidents in which soldiers allegedly rounded up Palestinians, hauled them to arranged sites and beat them systematically, often breaking hands or arms.
In Ramallah, witnesses told of beatings of merchants and alleged instigators of the strike in a vacant lot just off the main square. Israeli journalists saw bloodstains there and the local hospital reported treating 56 people for broken bones, bruises and cuts allegedly inflicted by the Army.
Mitzna said he had investigated the reports, which he called inflated and based on hearsay, and said he was told the lot was used as a holding area for those arrested during disturbances. He conceded that "maybe someone was beaten there without the necessity to do it."
He put the recent rash of complaints in three categories: those based on facts, those that were false, and those that resulted from "misunderstandings" due to the close physical contact between soldiers and civilians that the changing Army policy had produced.
During the first weeks of the violence, soldiers avoided such contact and used firearms when confronted with violent demonstrations, he said. The result was a death toll of more than 20 Palestinians in December. Early this month, the Army changed to the policy of "force, power and beatings" instead of bullets.
Mitzna said soldiers understood they were allowed to use force only when subduing rioters during violent incidents or when they resisted arrest.
"We had maybe too many exceptions," he said, but he insisted that such actions were "against our way of thinking" and "our sensitive consciences." He said he could not say how many soldiers had been disciplined.
Mitzna said the Army's goal now was to return the situation in the occupied areas to normal and that as soon as that was accomplished, it would reduce its forces in the area and avoid physical contact with civilians.
"I want to go back to the period in which a few soldiers would deal with the problems in the area," he said.
Mitzna refused to speculate on whether the government's expulsion of four Palestinian activists two weeks ago and plans to deport five others would rekindle the violence. But Police Minister Haim Bar-Lev told reporters earlier today that he believed that the expulsions should be suspended to maintain the relative calm of recent days.
Officials said Israel's three top leaders -- Rabin, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres -- met yesterday and agreed to postpone expulsions.
Bar-Lev also said the authorities would build several new detention camps in the occupied territories, including one for children, to handle the overflow of prisoners from the recent violence. Israel's prisons were filled to capacity, he said.
Mitzna defended the practice of forcing Arabs to open their shops, insisting that merchants and residents wanted normal life and commerce restored but were being intimidated by radicals. But shopkeepers in Ramallah this morning described a far different situation. They said weeks of strikes and forced openings had created a state of bitterness between the Army and local merchants caught between demands of two determined forces.
The new leaflets, the fifth set issued by the underground committee, were dropped on sidewalks early today in East Jerusalem, Ramallah and other West Bank communities. They urged merchants to continue the commercial strike that has been in effect almost continually since Christmas and said shopowners could open for a few hours on certain days to meet emergency needs but warned them not to inflate their prices.
The leaflets also accused Jordan of seeking to exploit the "uprising" and urged a boycott of An Nahar, an East Jerusalem newspaper started up last year with Jordanian funds.
The soldiers came later to Ramallah in a swirling fog. "Open your shops or we will open them," barked one from a loudspeaker atop a jeep followed by troops of the elite Golani infantry brigade.
They broke padlocks on some shops and persuaded merchants to open others.
"As soon as they leave we'll close up again," said Aziz Khayat, owner of a small clothing shop. "They open, we close. It's like a game. Our whole life is like a game."