JERUSALEM, JAN. 30 -- "We went into almost every second house," the soldier told the Hebrew daily Hadashot. "We tied up the men outside with their faces to the wall, and during questioning, soldiers hit them with clubs. The men screamed from pain and the women who heard them also screamed."
Somewhere, somehow, many Israelis fear, Israel's Army has lost its way in the winding, unpaved streets and narrow back alleyways of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Ten days after Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced a policy of "force, power and beatings" to smother a seven-week-long wave of Palestinian unrest, dozens of accounts of brutality have emerged.
Most have come from Arab victims or witnesses, although a handful have been provided anonymously by soldiers such as the one quoted in Hadashot. The soldier, a 20-year-old serving in Gaza, was identified in the newspaper only by the initials Y.Z. Arab hospitals and U.N. clinics in Gaza and the West Bank say they have treated more than 300 persons for broken bones and other injuries allegedly inflicted by soldiers.
Television crews have caught soldiers beating several Arab civilians and, on at least two occasions, were roughed up themselves this week. A bloodstained wall in a vacant lot off the main square in the West Bank town of Ramallah, a place where soldiers bound and allegedly assaulted Arab shopkeepers and youths, has become the new symbol of Israel's occupation.
Israeli officials contend Rabin's statements were misinterpreted, that there was no intention that innocent civilians be beaten, only rioters caught in the act or resisting arrest, that the orders to the troops were clear and that news accounts of the beatings were inflated.
But they concede that some soldiers clearly exceeded those orders. And a few senior officials privately have expressed surprise at the enthusiasm with which some soldiers carried out a policy that they believed gave them a green light to, as Rabin put it repeatedly, "instill fear" in the civilian population.
On one level the policy has worked; the number of Arabs wounded or killed by Israeli gunfire in the territories has declined dramatically in the past three weeks, even as the number of those allegedly beaten has increased. The daily wave of rioting has been replaced by sporadic skirmishes.
But the policy and the brutal way in which it has been carried out in some areas have produced a counterwave of soul-searching inside the Army and among informed outsiders struggling to understand what has happened to transform members of a fighting force that once prided itself on its sensitivity to human suffering.
This article is based on interviews with several Israeli psychologists and philosophers, on recent remarks by soldiers and their commanding officers and on observations in the Army's newest battlefield -- the refugee camps, villages and towns of the territories.
What happened to the Army, these sources contend, is a complicated chain of circumstances in which history, psychology and emotion intermingle. Several factors combined to produce an explosion of fear, hostility and, in some cases, brutality that has swept across the territories. They include an ingrained suspicion and resentment of Arabs, thetensions of a policing mission that soldiers were ill-trained and ill-equipped to carry out and orders and signals from commanders that were less than clear.
A soldier is combat-trained "not to ask too many questions but to open fire when he sees the enemy," said Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna, military commander of the West Bank. "But here the situation is different. It is not conquer the hill and use all the means. You have to use your brain, you have to use your head on the one hand, and of course you have to use your hand on the other.
"You have to deal with civilians . . . not to see each of them as an enemy but only those who are acting against you," Mitzna told a press conference this week. To make such differentiations is "very, very difficult," he said, and the mission "is confusing from every point that you will look at it."
The emotions motivating the young Palestinian rioters in the refugee camps are fairly clear-cut, these experts say. Besides a deep hatred of soldiers as the embodiment of the Israeli occupation, there is also anger and bitterness against Arab and Palestinian leaders whom many of the youths hold responsible for not delivering them from their plight during the 40 years the refugee camps have existed and the nearly 21 years of occupation.
Some of the anger is also aimed at their own fathers, who have submitted passively to the occupation. Many youths have spoken of watching their fathers being humiliated by young Israeli soldiers at military checkpoints or by employers. Some have sworn that they themselves will never submit to such humiliation.
But the hostility of the Israeli soldiers, many of whom are around the same age as their Palestinian antagonists, stems from more complex motives, the analysts believe. Most are in their late teens and early 20s and have come of age in an Israel that appears more secure militarily than at any time since the birth of the state in 1948.
Yet many seem angry and tense, both at the Palestinians they have to police, at the press and at their own political leaders and commanders who have thrust them into a difficult, even impossible situation.
Part of their anger stems from circumstances and part from history, said Israeli philosopher David Hartman. He pointed out that much of the most serious violence has taken place at the refugee camps, set up by the United Nations after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled from their homes during Israel's 1948 independence war. The residents of the camps consider themselves dispossessed, yet Hartman suggests that the camps are designed to make Israelis feel dispossessed as well.
"The camps are the abiding symbol of the refusal of the Arab states to recognize Israel's right to exist," says Hartman. The message the camps convey to Israelis, he says, is "you're not really here, you don't really exist, you're a passing episode and it's just a matter of time before you disappear."
The soldiers came to the camps to restore order. At first they were directed to avoid physical contact with residents, to use tear gas and rubber bullets and, if necessary, live ammunition against crowds of rioters. But the mounting death toll -- at least 24 Palestinians were killed in three weeks in December -- caused the Army to change policy on Jan 21.
Soldiers were ordered to become more aggressive, using tight military curfews and predawn roundups. When confronted with rioters they were ordered to charge the mob and to beat those they caught. They were also ordered to beat those resisting arrest.
Mitzna and other military commanders say that is as far as the orders went -- that the beatings were to be strictly limited. But Arab witnesses, analysts and some soldiers themselves say differently. The clear signal from the military command and from Rabin was that the gloves could come off, they contend.
"No one knows for sure what are the limits," said Hanoch Yerushalmi, a clinical psychologist at Hebrew University who also serves as a reserve Army officer. "It is a period of uncertainty and confusion, and those giving the orders are very indirect because they themselves don't know how to act and no one wants to be the guilty party if anything bad should happen."
Yerushalmi, who stressed that his views are based on personal observation rather than clinical findings, said the result is that young officers in the field often take the lead in making decisions, knowing that their commanders "will at least close their eyes." That may explain, he says, how dozens of Arabs could have been taken by soldiers to the stone wall in Ramallah and beaten over a period of a week while their commanders claimed to have no knowledge of the practice.
He also believes that, just like the young Palestinians, the Israeli soldiers are in part expressing anger at their commanders and political leaders when they beat Arabs. "A lot of this is due to frustration and anger at the people who sent them here in the first place," he said.
Few soldiers hide their deep unhappiness with the mission they were assigned here. Paratroopers in a unit that spent six weeks in Ramallah told reporters they recently took a poll, and 98 of the 99 who expressed an opinion said they would rather be in Lebanon than here. Mitzna said he is trying to ensure that, in the future, units spend no more than a month at a time in the West Bank.
Clinical psychologist Amnon Toledano, himself a former Army officer, says another element is the feeling of victimization that many Israeli Jews hold inside, a feeling exacerbated by the stone throwers. "Arabs don't believe it, but the fact is that no matter how strong we may look, Jews fear them," he says.
All of these elements -- uncertainty, fear, anger, the historical memory the camps evoke -- made the soldiers prone to violence, the analysts believe. And Rabin's announcement unleashed it.
"When Rabin said 'break bones,' he was giving expression to a rage, and he didn't understand how deep it was," said Hartman. "What happened was a lashing out, a release of national rage."
Not all the soldiers responded identically. Y.Z. says many in his unit refused to participate in the beatings. There were severe arguments among them, he says, and one soldier even called another a "Nazi" and told him, "Wait until we take off our uniforms, I'll give you back everything you did here."
Yerushalmi and Toledano say they fear that the violence released in the territories will spill over into Israel itself. Daily Israeli life is becoming more violent, Toledano contends, and political views more hardline. Both were among some 450 mental health workers who signed a petition published yesterday warning of the "destructive impact" of events in the territories and calling for an end to the occupation.
A company commander in the West Bank said he also fears for the future of the men under him. "The soldiers had a technical problem -- they didn't know how to beat," he told the newspaper Maariv. "Now they are used to it. The question is, after these units leave Judea and Samaria," the Israeli term for the West Bank, "will we succeed in removing Judea and Samaria from them?"