Israeli soldiers question tactics on West Bank

The widespread use of gunfire in suppressing violent demonstrations on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the past two months has created a moral crisis among many of the Israeli officers and soldiers involved.

There are indications that the authorities now are seeking more moderate ways of dealing with rock-throwing demonstrators, such as the use of rubber bullets.

At a dramatic press conference in Jerusalem this week, six reserve Army officers, two of them battalion commanders, condemned the government's policies in the occupied territories as brutal and as corrupting the Army's moral values.

Lending weight to the protest was the fact that one of the battalion leaders, Maj. Yuval Neriya, is one of the eight men who received Israel's highest award for valor during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 in which he had several tanks shot out from under him.

''I have served in one very frightening war,'' said Major Neriya, ''but the amount of emotional baggage I carry with me is modest compared to my experience over the past month.'' He had been on reserve duty in the West Bank.

The officers also objected to collective punishment and public humiliation of residents of Arab villages where youths have stoned Israeli vehicles.

''We are gradually losing our humanity,'' said Maj. Benny Barbash (Res.) ''The local residents are gradually becoming objects in our eyes -- at best mere objects, at worst something to be degraded and humiliated.''

At a press conference organized by the Peace Now movement, Defense Ministry sources dismissed the officer's charges as ''groundless.''

At least 10 Arabs have been shot and killed in demonstrations during the past two months and scores, if not hundreds, wounded. Two Israeli soldiers have been killed in the territories during this period and dozens of Israelis and tourists wounded.

In another protest meeting at Hebrew University, Lt. Col. Danny Wolf (Res.), a former commander of a crack paratroop brigade, accused the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin of defiling the Army's moral standards by the way it is employing troops in the occupied territories.

Israeli military correspondents reported this week that Gen. Uri Or, whose area of command includes the West Bank, has called upon his officers and upon Israelis living in West Bank settlements to avoid shooting if at all possible.

If they must shoot to extricate themselves from a dangerous situation, he reportedly said, they should shoot only at legs. The security forces have also reportedly been investigating the use of rubber bullets, water cannons, and other non-lethal weapons in dealing with demonstrators.

The past few days have been relatively quiet in the territories. A public opinion poll published this week shows that 77 percent of Israelis endorse the government's policies in the territories, replying affirmatively to the question: ''Do you think the measures adopted by the Army justified?'' The poll, however, was taken in mid-April when the full measure of events was not yet evident to the general public.

In the Knesset May 11, former Chief of Staff Mordecai Gur, now a member of the opposition Labor Party, attacked the government's policy in the territories as ''a scandal.''

The officers and soldiers objecting this week to the government's policy have gone out of their way to stress that they are not contemplating a refusal to serve in the occupied territories as a handful of men have done in the past.

But the moral dilemma posed by the situation has aroused concern, particularly in kibutzim which are both strongholds of liberal ideology and suppliers of a high proportion of officers in elite combat units.

One of the two major umbrella organizations for kibutzim, Kibutz Artzi, felt called upon last week to issue an ''information sheet'' to all its members serving in the regular Army or reserves, calling upon them to carry out all orders given by superior officers unless the orders are clearly illegal.

An editorial by Israel's leading daily Haaretz noted this unusual call for self-discipline and said it indicated that its authors apparently had cause for concern. ''The defense minister and chief of staff must realize that an Army based on a general draft is not a robot,'' said the editorial.

In many kibutzim, members have begun to assemble every Friday afternoon to hear reports from soldiers returning to the kibutz for Sabbath leave on what has happened in the territories during the week.

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