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Keeping Lid on Unrest : West Bank: Tense Duty for Israelis

December 13, 1986|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

HEBRON, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — Before most of his countrymen had even gone to work, Lt. Col. Moshe Givati, the Israeli military commander in charge of the southern part of the West Bank, knew he faced potential trouble in the two biggest towns under his control.

He had been awakened in the middle of the night with reports that students from Bethlehem University planned a memorial rally for two Palestinian youths shot to death by Israeli troops a few days earlier at another West Bank university. And now students were congregating menacingly outside the Islamic University here in Hebron, the headquarters city for his command.

Givati, a twice-wounded career officer who has held this job for 10 months, has earned a reputation of dealing firmly with such situations. He is admittedly more used to issuing ultimatums to demonstrators than to negotiating with them. He said he personally wounded a rock-throwing Palestinian youth in the legs during a clash earlier this year.

Order to Ease Up

But after the West Bank violence of recent days, which has left four Arab youths dead and at least 20 wounded, the order this day was to ease up. In particular, the army was not to open fire except under the most extreme circumstances.

As dusk gathered many hours later, Givati had managed to keep order without resorting to force. His counterpart in the occupied Gaza Strip had not been as successful, and another Palestinian, a 16-year-old girl, had been shot in the wrist.

It was one of the better days in what Givati described as his "complicated and very frustrating" service on the West Bank. Trained to fight enemy Arab armies, he said he feels torn by a policing job in which there is no black and white, but only shades of gray.

'Actions Were Very Clear'

"When I had to fight against the Syrians, all my actions were very clear--knowing what I am doing is to survive, to help Israel survive, and to keep my soldiers alive," he said. "I was maybe tense, maybe tired, maybe in lousy conditions, but I was clear in my mind about what I was doing.

"Here I find myself thinking more: What am I doing here? What I am doing: Is it right? This job causes you to think more about who you are, what you're doing, why you're doing it.

"On the one hand, you want to do your best to keep the situation quiet," he said. "On the other, it means you're fighting children."

The U.N. Security Council on Monday condemned "the opening of fire by the Israeli army resulting in the deaths and wounding of defenseless students," and the United States, which abstained in the U.N. vote, delivered a verbal protest to the Israeli Foreign Ministry on Wednesday.

While expressing "all due regret" over the killings, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin defended his army. It acted in accordance with procedures allowing troops to fire at the feet of demonstrators when other methods to disperse them have failed and directly at them in life-threatening situations, he said.

(Israeli investigators now say one of the four dead Palestinians, a 12-year-old boy, may have been shot by Jewish settlers rather than soldiers. On Friday, Rabin ordered an inquiry into the shooting, the Associated Press reported. )

Frictions and Violence

A day spent with Givati this week provided a glimpse, from the Israeli's soldier viewpoint, of the day-to-day friction that can erupt at any time into the kind of bloody clashes that have characterized the past week.

Givati is military commander over what the Israelis know by its biblical name as Judea-- an area extending from the southern outskirts of Jerusalem nearly to Beersheba, and stretching westward from the Dead Sea to the "green line" which, before the 1967 Six-Day War, divided Israel from a West Bank ruled by Jordan.

About 11,000 of Israel's most militant Jewish settlers live in the area amid 400,000 Arabs. Hebron is the only West Bank center where Jews live in the middle of a Palestinian city, creating a uniquely tense situation, which Givati said makes him feel "that I am sitting on a barrel of gun powder."

His job is to keep the roads open, to protect the Jewish settlers, and to keep the settlers from undertaking vigilante actions against the Arabs. Day-to-day problems are the responsibility of the civil administration and the local, mostly Arab police.

Reinforcements Deployed

Givati normally has several hundred troops at his command, including members of the paramilitary police border guards. The army sent in reinforcements because of the latest violence.

Some of his soldiers oppose Israel's policies in the West Bank--particularly Jewish settlement in the heart of Hebron. But Givati said he tells them he doesn't care about their political views; policy is the government's concern, theirs is security.

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