What They Say in Ramallah About the Soldiers' Behavior

Even while under siege in their enclaves, bombed and shelled and shot inside their homes, Palestinians continue to analyze the Israeli army's behavior.

Palestinians who were interrogated by the Shin Bet in the days when torture went unmonitored reached the conclusion that their interrogators were taught not to act out of personal vengeance. If an interrogator realized that he was given false information, and was angered by that, he would leave the room and another interrogator would replace him. Whether accurate or not, that shows that people do not lose their ability to analyze their situation and draw conclusions.

The same thing is happening now in the territories: Even while under siege in their enclaves, bombed and shelled and shot inside their homes, Palestinians continue to analyze the Israeli army's behavior. Israeli intelligence, and its spokesmen, like to draw a link between Arafat's presumed sense of humiliation, or his uneasy relations with the Tanzim, and the attacks. To make it easy for the Israeli consumer of these perspectives, they ignore the way the IDF is perceived by the people to whom the army ostensibly is delivering the government's message.

This week, in Ramallah, the IDF evacuation of the neighborhoods it occupied since December 2001 provided another opportunity for people to exchange views. In the neighborhood grocery, where they have to throw away products that have passed their sell-by date because so few are able to buy, alongside the toppled electricity poles on the sidewalks ruined by the tanks - people are talking about their perceptions of the soldiers as individuals, and of the IDF as an organization.

l Fear. The seemingly uncontrolled shooting by soldiers at checkpoints and outposts is frightening. In Qalandiyah they shoot at people who gather 300 meters away. In Ramallah they shot at youths who were throwing stones at tanks. At what was until last week the Ein Ariq checkpoint, which the IDF has since destroyed, blocking the road with piles of dirt, bulwarks, barbed wire and channels dug across it, soldiers confirmed for Ha'aretz what the Palestinians said: "We have orders to fire at anyone who approaches," said the soldiers who climbed down from their APC slightly less tense after they heard some Hebrew. But no matter how frightening their behavior and its consequences may be, people draw the conclusion that the behavior is a result of the profound fear felt by the soldiers.

According to Palestinian observers, fear also accompanied the Israeli evacuation from the Ramallah neighborhoods. Many helicopters flew overhead while the tanks and APCs left. "They were here for three months and did whatever they wanted, practically without anyone interfering," said someone in the grocery store. "They blocked roads, didn't let people walk by, fired tear gas grenades and stun grenades. Suddenly, when they leave, they're afraid someone will attack them?" Disgraceful, says the grocer.

l Futility. One of the shoppers in the grocery didn't think it was disgraceful. She said it showed the IDF made sure to conduct an orderly exit without any disturbances. But they both agreed that the IDF left the way it came in: other than demolishing things and making the lives of the residents miserable, the army did not achieve a thing. Not militarily and not politically. The deployment in Ramallah did not prevent the soldiers from getting killed at Surda and Ein Ariq.

And Yasser Arafat only benefited from the siege on his office. After his popularity had reached new lows, it rose dramatically in the last two months. People who never were great admirers of him and his leadership, now admit that he has an authentic - and infectious - steadfastness.

l Revenge for revenge's sake. After the six soldiers were killed at Ein Ariq, the IDF responded with a series of shellings, bombings and incursions. There was no resistance, but 13 Palestinian security officials and 15 civilians were killed. The Gaza bombings hit several buildings that had already been shelled in the past and have not been rebuilt or resumed functioning. People may be mourning their dead, but many believe that operations motivated by revenge reveal weakness, not strength.

l Confusion. Above and beyond the rage at the killing of a Palestinian who was taking his pregnant wife to a Nablus hospital for their baby to be delivered, and the wounding of another pregnant woman at the same checkpoint, people have noticed there is no coordination between forces that are stationed close to one another.

In both instances, which took place within 24 hours, the soldiers at the checkpoint had allowed vehicles to pass only a few minutes earlier. In the same manner, other contradictory orders are given to the soldiers at dozens of other checkpoints in the West Bank, even if the results are not always fatal.

l Vandalism. A few minutes after the soldiers left the building the IDF took over in Ramallah three months ago, visitors found the place looking like a pig sty. People could understand, perhaps, why computer disks were taken - even if they happened to belong to a private company. They could not understand why the disks were not returned (after they were no doubt copied), why computer parts were thrown into the yard or disappeared, and why telephones, a refrigerator, cooking gas cylinders and cash were missing. They couldn't understand why the bathrooms were so filthy, and why condoms were left on a table.

If that is how the soldiers behave, they were saying yesterday in Ramallah, the IDF, which is supposed to be well-organized, has serious command problems.