DEHAISHE, FEB. 6 -- Theirs is a gray world of stone -- stone fences, stone houses, stone gardens. The soil is hard and unforgiving, the sun bright and punishing. Vegetation is scarce. Stone is the most available resource, the easiest thing for children to see and touch. In a place where playthings are scarce, it is their toy.
Meet Mohammed, a 10-year-old with a runny nose and a smudged face, dressed in frayed blue jeans and a tattered blue sweater. In one of his pockets is a home-made slingshot -- a small patch of leather inside a large rubber band -- that he uses to shoot pebbles and marbles at cars and buses.
On his left shin is a perfectly round, bluish-red bruise he got Tuesday from an Israeli rubber bullet when soldiers fired at stone throwers in this refugee camp on the occupied West Bank. "It hurt a little bit but I didn't cry," he says proudly.
Then there is Farid, age 12. Every morning when he starts out for school he packs a few stones in his book bag. He likes to throw the stones at Israeli soldiers and at the Jewish vehicles passing near his home. It's fun, he says, and besides, "We hope that by throwing stones we will get back our rights and our land."
And there is Thaer, age 7, wearing plaid bedroom slippers with no socks, a brown sweater, a green scarf and a wide grin yesterday morning. His parents tell him not to throw stones but "I don't listen," he says. "I want to be like the rest of the kids." He says his heroes are Yasser Arafat -- and Lenin.
These are the children of the stones, the youngest warriors in a wave of civil unrest that started more than eight weeks ago in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. They live in the Dehaishe refugee camp, a bleak, overcrowded ghetto of perhaps 10,000 Palestinians whose concrete houses cling to the side of a rocky slope just south of Bethlehem in the West Bank.
Dehaishe is located to the east of the Jerusalem-Hebron road, a main highway that has become the newest battleground in the violence. Jewish settlers use this road to travel to their homes in places like Efrat and Kiryat Arba. The highway has become a shooting gallery, and their cars and buses are targets for stones, bottles and molotov cocktails. So are the soldiers assigned to protect them.
It is, increasingly, a children's war. Motorists and soldiers say they usually do not get a good look at the stone throwers who dart out from behind the shops that line the highway, fling their rocks and then dash back in retreat. But those that do often express surprise at the youth of their assailants.
Most Israelis who have seen these children from refugee camps believe the children throw stones for excitement, or because they are ordered to do so by their older brothers and sisters. "They are so young, I don't think they hate us," said an Army officer in Tulkarm, a refugee camp in the north. "It's just a game to them."
But like Farid, most of the dozen or so young stone throwers interviewed yesterday say they throw rocks not just for fun but because they believe they are harming their enemies. And even the youngest among them, such as six-year-old Said, know who the enemy is. "It is the Jews," he says with a shy smile.
Dehaishe, like every refugee camp in this region, has its own bitter history. Most of the residents came here in 1948, fleeing from 39 villages around the central Israeli towns of Lod and Ramle and from Jerusalem. Some were expelled by Israeli forces during the 1948 independence war, while others left on their own because of fear or because their leaders ordered them out.
Dehaishe was supposed to be a temporary stopover on the way back to their homes and fields. Instead it has become a permanent address and, for many residents, a cage. The caged feeling is exacerbated by the 20-foot-high chain-link fence the Army has erected between the camp and the highway to block the stones, and by the barricades of concrete-filled oil drums and barbed wire that seal off all but one entrance to the road.
The children here are very young, but already they are well-versed in the abiding grievances of their people. Many have fathers, uncles or brothers who have been arrested and jailed by the Israelis.
As they grow up, they see scenes that fit the stories they hear, such as the razor wire blocking off the local youth center. The center was boarded up five years ago by the authorities, who claimed it was a planning ground for violent demonstrations. Some have been awakened after midnight by shouts and screams when soldiers entered the camp to make arrests. They have also seen settlers, infuriated by stone throwers, invade the camp grounds brandishing weapons and shooting out windows of houses, or seizing young suspects and hauling them to the nearby military headquarters.
"They have very strong feelings about what's going on," said an Arab child psychologist in the southern city of Hebron who asked not to be identified. "They see their brothers throw stones and they want to do it too.
"I have a niece who is 2 1/2. When she sees soldiers, she runs away shouting, 'They want to shoot me.' She's developing the same characteristics and fears of her parents and her brothers."
And so, indoctrinated in their cause by both their families and their enemies, the children of Dehaishe have joined the war. "They have broken a lot of our glass, so we have to get our glass back," says Farid about the Israelis. "But we also want to injure them because they have injured us and killed our people."
The children say the best time for stone throwing is just before school, at around 8 a.m., when Jewish commuters head toward Jerusalem, or around dusk when the light fades and it is hard to catch a child in Dehaishe's maze of winding dirt roads. The best targets are the red-and-white Egged (pronounced Egg-ed) public buses, because they are big and have many windows. The best place is near the shops, where there is a long gap in the preventive fence.
Since he is 12, Farid is in the pivotal age group between the very young and the teen-agers. "Sometimes I lead the younger kids and sometimes I follow the older kids," he says.
Sometimes the young work for their older brothers, Mohammed says, piling up stones at strategic locations and bringing buckets of water to help ward off the effects of tear gas. The youngest also serve as scouts, standing watch on the low ground and scampering up the hill to warn their brothers when the soldiers arrive.
Like good quarterbacks, the children quickly learn to throw ahead of a speeding car so the stone arrives at the same time as the vehicle. They can distinguish between the dull sound of rubber bullets and the sharper report of live ammunition. They know there is only one unit of soldiers guarding the road after dark and they know where those soldiers are posted.
They collect spent cartridges and tear gas canisters as souvenirs, and have songs that celebrate the stones as their weapons.
Faced with this kind of enthusiasm, the soldiers have few tools to fight back. They can round up the youngsters and hold them temporarily, but the Army says it imprisons no one under 14. While slapping a curfew on a camp inhibits the adults, it appears to have little impact on the children.
Sometimes the soldiers get angry and some of the older children say they have been caught and slapped around.
Wael, 12, says he was on his way to his grandfather's house Thursday when soldiers grabbed him and beat him on the back and then broke his arm, now tightly wrapped in splints. His father, Zahail, a van driver, is deeply angry.
"After what happened to my kid, I'm ready to lead a demonstration myself," Zahail says. "They broke his arm for nothing. It's crazy for the Army to respond to little kids. The reaction is much worse than the action. The Army should just leave."
Mohammed says his parents do not approve of his stone-throwing and beat him once when they found out he had been involved. Other parents seem ambivalent and some seem wrapped so tightly in their own web of anger that they offer vocal or tacit approval even though they know their children risk physical injury.
Halima, a mother of six, listened to her 10-year-old son, Ghassam, describe his involvement in the stone-throwing. Asked if she approves, she replies, "We are afraid for our kids but all our people have to resist the occupation. Even if he's injured, we are used to it now. Of course we are affected but other people's kids are killed. So we don't stop them."
And what about the occupants of the cars they hit, some of whom are children also? "Any mother is pained when a child is hurt because a child is not responsible," replies Halima. "It's the adults who should be blamed. We hurt the Jews and they hurt us. They are provoking us. They don't stop their soldiers, so we don't stop our kids."
Shmuel Ben Yishai is a Jewish settler from Kiryat Arba who started packing a gun and riding the highway with other vigilantes after the cars of his neighbors were smashed by stones. He has been inside Dehaishe many times in the past year and he hates the Arabs as much as they hate him. The young stone throwers do not suprise him.
"Maybe I'll teach my kids to throw stones at Arab cars," he says. "Look, this is a war. My kids are their enemy and their kids are my enemy. It's as simple as that."