Horns blared and Israeli travelers shouted as about 12 carloads of Israeli settlers from the West Bank Jewish town of Kiryat Arba blocked the road outside Dhaishe Palestinian refugee camp.
''We are demonstrating against rock-throwing,'' said Shani Horowitz, a young New York City-born settler living in Hebron. He was standing on a site where earlier that morning Arab schoolchildren had stoned Jewish cars.
The escalating battle of stones - which dot the West Bank soil like raisins in a pudding - have pitted Jewish settlers in recent weeks against stone-throwing Arab youths, making road travel dangerous for those with yellow Israeli license plates rather than the blue ones issued to West Bank Arabs. It has also provided the rationale for a rash of settler vigilante actions against Palestinian families and institutions, which have frightened Arabs and sparked an angry debate inside Israel.
''It isn't just rock-throwing. . . . It kills,'' says Mrs. Horowitz, who lives with her Israeli-born husband in a Jewish quarter in Hebron. Her reference is to the death two weeks ago of a young Israeli woman hit by a stone while driving through the West Bank Arab village of Daharyia.
Kiryat Arba residents argue that the recent wave of stone-throwing - long a tactic of West Bank schoolchildren, especially near crowded refugee camps - has escalated because of the firing of Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Mr. Sharon was known for his hard hand in the occupied territory.
''The Arabs know that they can do things they didn't do before,'' says Dan Be'Iri, director of a religious primary school in Kiryat Arba, an apartment city of 5,000 above Hebron.
Arab residents dispute both the cause of the stone-throwing and the settler tactics used to check it. ''In Daharyia, 20,000 dunams (5,000 acres) were recently confiscated by the Israelis,'' says acting Hebron Mayor Mustapha Natshe. ''If a boy finds the father's land taken from under his feet, do you expect him to say 'shalom' (Hebrew for hello)?''
Mayor Natshe says settlers have repeatedly sought to take the law into their own hands. Last month, a bomb went off outside a Hebron mosque minutes before hundreds of worshippers left prayers.
The next evening, eight masked settlers - so far unidentified - reportedly shot at three Arab houses just below Kiryat Arba. Mrs. Muhammad Nassar Ja'abari shows a visitor 12 bullet holes where the shots pierced her house while the family of 13 was watching television. Her four-year-old daughter was slightly wounded. Her son Majdi, who along with his contractor father used to build houses in Kiryat Arba, insists, ''the trouble begins with the settlers. If they stay good with us, we can live with them.''
In Yatta, schoolchildren are still buzzing after seven settlers rounded them up at gunpoint Thursday, shot into the air, and shouted abuse for an hour in the school courtyard until the Israeli Army arrived and the settlers left. School officials were advised to file charges but are skeptical they will get results.
Yatta municipal secretary Issa Abu Zahr says, ''We tell the students daily not to throw stones but no one can stop them. If settlers come, the students will be more nervous and will burn tires in reply.''