JERUSALEM — ON a chilly, rain-swept evening just outside the village of Ain Siniya on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a bus straddles the wet road. Bullet holes testify to the latest attack on Israeli settlers by Arab gunmen.
Six Israeli settlers and an Arab driver have been wounded by gunmen firing from among the olive trees ranged in terraces up the side of the hill.
Nearby, Israeli Army Maj. Gen. Danny Yatom, in charge of the central district, says he hopes Jewish settlers won't overreact.
"I hope that the settlers ... will not make any attempts to break the law and will continue to rely on the Israel Defense Forces," General Yatom says.
The Army's assurances sound less and less convincing to the 110,000 settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"We feel today, traveling our roads and driving around, that it's like a turkey shoot and we're the turkeys," says Bob Lang, a settler spokesman.
Living on territory conquered by Israel in 1967, it is the settlers who are the principal targets of Palestinian animosity. For the most part, this is demonstrated in repeated stone-throwing against settler vehicles. But the recent spate of shootings has killed three settlers.
The settlers have responded by mounting their own patrols, driving along roads that have become dangerous and into Arab towns and villages at night.
"The motivation is to force a Jewish presence into these areas, to force the Army to be there," says Mr. Lang. "To let the Arab population know that we're here to stay, that we're bigger and stronger. It is not to come in conflict with the Army or with the Arab population."
Since the settlers have stepped up their activities, however, Palestinian towns and villages have echoed with the sounds of breaking glass and gunshots.
Not content with passing out leaflets and patrolling the streets, hundreds of settlers have rampaged through the streets at night, breaking windows, slashing car tires, shooting in the air, and shouting threatening warnings through bullhorns.
"They came on Christmas night," says Abdullah Sumrain, a Greek Orthodox priest in the remote West Bank village of Abud. "They came around 10 o'clock at night and they started shouting and throwing stones at homes."
The stones, which shattered many of Mr. Sumrain's windows, still lie on the floor amid piles of broken glass. Sumrain says he is still waiting for the authorities to come and investigate the incident.
Several other houses in Abud encountered the same fate. The settlers also left obscene graffiti on the walls.
The settlers stress that such incidents are the work of fringe elements, but the destruction wrought by Israeli vigilante groups is everywhere to be seen.
"We don't want to do anything against the law," says Tova Frankel, from the settlement of Bet El. "As soon as law officers come and tell us something is against the law, we stop doing it. The Jewish people are not a militant people, and neither are we."
The night patrols, together with impromptu roadblocks and noisy protests outside the homes of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, give a somewhat different impression. When a convoy of settler vehicles began shadowing Moshe Arens, the Israeli defense minister, as he went about his duties, even Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, a staunch supporter of the settlers, was compelled to reprimand them.
"Never before has a defense minister been treated in that fashion," Mr. Shamir said. "It goes against what is human and what is Jewish."
The defense establishment, which recently gave permission for settlers to mount civil-guard patrols within their communities, says it opposes any action that goes beyond settlement perimeters or that poses a challenge to Army rule.
"We will not stand for any vigilante action," says Moshe Fogel, the Army's spokesman, "and will take the proper measures to make sure the law is respected by Israelis and Arab."
But while not openly challenging Army authority, many settlers are taking their cue from their religious leaders. It is this aspect that troubles some observers.
"The rabbis are not at all dependent on the government," Israel's foremost defense correspondent, Zeev Schiff, wrote in the magazine Jerusalem Report. "Their rulings include directives on practical matters - like when to open fire on rock throwers."
Mr. Schiff said the settlers' new approach is bound to lead to a confrontation with the Army.
"The settlers are talking as if their forces will have powers identical to those of the Army," he wrote recently.
In one recent case, the rabbi of Elon Moreh, a militant settlement near Nablus, ordered the uprooting of olive trees because Palestinian gunmen were allegedly using them for cover. Israeli opponents of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories say the settlers are motivated more by politics than security.
"The policy is designed to bring about the cessation of the peace process," says Galia Golan, of the protest group Peace Now. "The settlers have stated very clearly ... that they will do whatever they can to stop the peace process."
A group of Peace Now activists recently took the unusual step of demonstrating inside Bet El. The protest, Ms. Golan says, was to "give the settlers a taste of their own medicine."
"We want them to feel what it's like to have strangers come into your village, with a message you're not particularly happy with," she said.