"Where?" asked the soldier. "To Qalqiliya, to the hospital," said the Palestinian. "What for?" asked the soldier. "My wife's having a baby," said the Palestinian. "Boy or girl?" asked the soldier. "A daughter." "Girl. Okay, go."

That absurd dialogue took place last Saturday near the checkpoint at the entrance to Qalqiliya. Who should a soldier ask about the baby's gender? No reason. Why should a Palestinian who wants to go from his village to a nearby city be asked about the purpose of his journey? Just to prove how unlimited is the power in the hands of the soldier, who can determine the fate of any Palestinian he encounters.

At any given moment such dialogues can be heard at any of the hundreds of checkpoints the IDF has placed in the occupied territories, and in most cases they don't end as happily as they did for the father-to-be. It's not always a matter of visiting a maternity ward. Sometimes the soldier decides whether to let an ambulance pass, a patient can get to a dialysis, a bride to her wedding, a pupil to final exams. Now, more than ever, nearly every facet of normal life is in the hands of the individual soldier. The orders and regulations are vague and frequently change, and in any case, are not always strictly followed. For Palestinians, each and every soldier is omnisciently all-powerful. That's bad for the Palestinians, of course, but it is also bad for the soldiers.

It's not difficult to imagine what goes through the mind - and heart - of a Palestinian who requires the good graces of a soldier to go from one to place to another. It's easy to imagine the anger and vengeance planted in his heart when his request is denied, over and over again, usually for no reason or explanation. But what about how the circumstance affects an 18- to 21-year-old suddenly given the ability to so easily decide the fate of another person, for good or for bad?

That has been true since the beginning of the occupation, but as the army takes ever stricter and more brutal steps, soldiers must become more hard-hearted, and the authority vested in them becomes much greater than the moral standards any person their age can bear, no matter how good their education. What will happen to him in his adult life, after with a word here, a gesture there, at such a young age he made life and death decisions? What kind of citizen will emerge from a solder who knew that with one word he could decide the fate of any person - as long as they were Palestinian?

This question becomes even more serious when it's not merely a matter of a word, but a finger on a trigger. The situation in that area has gravely deteriorated recently. The rules of engagement have been drastically changed. Soldiers often shoot at anything that moves, without warning. It's not always clear to them what is allowed and what is forbidden, and it doesn't really matter much because the IDF almost never actually investigates deaths in the territories. Under these circumstances, the authority to open fire is often solely in the hands of the young soldiers, who often don't have the maturity to make the decision. It's no accident that reservists are almost always more cautious and restrained.

At their own initiative, soldiers fire shells at children on bicycles, snipe at pedestrians, women and children, and are never asked to explain why they did so, let alone prosecuted. The IDF sends the message that anything goes as far as the army is concerned.

The last two years have rolled back the years to a time when the IDF's soldiers did not perceive the Palestinians as human beings like themselves, and certainly not as people with human rights. Meetings with soldiers serving in the territories prove that, over and over again. From their perspective, the Palestinians are inferior "others," with whom the soldier can do whatever he wants. Just watch how the soldiers disperse a gathering in the territories - by shooting "warning" shots straight into the crowd, as if they were animals.

Mohammed Dahlan, the former national security adviser to Yasser Arafat, knows Israel intimately. He said a few weeks ago to Ha'aretz, "your army is like a horse running rampant. Who is supervising it? Sharon? Ben-Eliezer? Every soldier at a checkpoint behaves as if he is the elected prime minister."

Now add to the list of supervisors of the army, probable defense minister Shaul Mofaz, the man whose name inspires more disgust among Palestinians and human rights groups than even Sharon's or Ben-Eliezer's. Mofaz deserves that disgust: the IDF's moral degeneration in the territories, the mass assassinations, the mass imprisonment and starvation of the residents, and the quick fingers on the trigger are more his doing than anyone else's. There is real concern that if he were defense minister in an extremist right-wing government, he would order even more brutal steps and the soldiers will be freed of any moral limits. That should worry us even more than it worries the Palestinians.