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Behind the Headlines: Walking on Patrol Along the Streets of Nablus

February 13, 1989
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It is cold and wet today in Nablus. The sun peeps out from time to time, but mainly the wind sends sheets of rain dancing down the streets, causing both the merchants in the marketplace and the soldiers in their tents to rub their hands quickly together.

The town casbah, where 15,000 people are packed tightly into less than one square mile of dilapidated shops and homes, is one of the centers of the intifada — the 14-month-old Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But today, the streets are quiet. From a lookout post above the town, one sees neither tires burning nor tear gas fumes billowing. Just the eggshell-blue domes of the town’s mosques and line after line of once-dry laundry getting soaked by the driving rain.

When there is an incident, it usually occurs while a group of soldiers is patrolling the cramped streets of the casbah. Typically, a group of children fling stones at the soldiers from the rooftops. In response, the soldiers point machine guns at the children, usually sending them fleeing.

But sometimes the stones are actually concrete building blocks, and sometimes the children are 20 years old or more. And sometimes they do not run away in fear. That sends the soldiers chasing after them, running from rooftop to rooftop, trying to catch up.

It is a game of cat and mouse, explains one soldier — but not one that the Israelis enjoy. Yesterday, one of the soldiers fell 15 feet through a decrepit roof, trying to drive the rock-throwers away.


A soldier who came under a heavy hail of stones yesterday had to be rescued with the firing of a small amount of plastic bullets. No one was hurt. It was the first time in three weeks that ammunition had been used here. There has only been one firebomb thrown here in the last month.

Today, the big incident is a suspected explosive charge that has been discovered behind a parking lot off one of the main streets here. Troops cordon off the block with jeeps as sappers move in to detonate the suspected bomb.

Merchants and wide-eyed children cluster on the sidelines, hoping to catch a glimpse of what is going on. They are held at bay by calm soldiers pointing Uzis upward.

A rustling in the bushes and the sound of a few pebbles falling inspires an order from the battalion commander. Soldiers rush toward the crowd, their guns now pointed directly at the crowd, The onlookers scurry away and order is restored.

A loud boom signals that the suspected bomb has been detonated. But it turns out not to have been an explosive after all.

All of this has occurred outside the walls of the casbah, causing a bit of excitement in an otherwise monotonous day. But inside the casbah, just a few moments later, a patrol finds eerie silence, as if some nuclear disaster has snuffed out all signs of life.

It is just past noon, and all of the shops are shuttered closed, heavy metal doors giving no clue to what goods are sold inside. Two veiled women walk by, but otherwise not a soul is seen.

The patrol turns down a side street, and some 500 yards away, a group of young children are causing a ruckus. Soldiers run toward them, and the children disperse like pigeons in a public park.

The patrol has ended without incident. No headlines here today, just the same routine that professional soldiers have been burdened with for the last 14 months.

“It is difficult to be a soldier in the intifada,” says 31-year-old Yehuda, a major whose unit is doing its first tour of reserve duty in the territories since the uprising began.

He explains that the unit was trained to be paratroopers, not policemen, and is used to fighting a hostile enemy, not bright-eyed children.

“We are human beings, and not just soldiers,” he says. “We want to behave as human beings. But while “most of the population here does not want to fight against us,” Yehuda and his fellow soldiers know that “some of them are against us and are threatening our lives.”

It is very difficult to see kids here, with their naive eyes and their fear. It is very difficult, stresses Yehuda, who has a 5-month-old daughter himself and a wife at home in Tel Aviv.

Eyal, also 31, a captain with two children at home, agrees. “The little kids are so afraid,” he says. “But sometimes,” he adds, “we, as fathers, have stronger feelings than the kids.

“We try as much as possible to avoid casualties,” he says.

“We are not a guerrilla army,” says Yehuda. “We are a moral army that has its problems, but is trying to do the best to solve its problems.”

But another soldier confides, “I’m just doing my duty. And I want to get out of here as soon as possible.”

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