Barely have the eight, helmeted Israeli troops cleared the makeshift protest roadblock and driven off, when a stocky Palestinian youth emerges from behind a retaining wall. He leads a handful of even younger cohorts in a chant of ``victory'' over the departed soldiers, then sprints across the road to a gas station and snorts an order at the attendant. A few months back - before the start of the intifadah, or ``uprising,'' against Israeli rule - the older Arab man might have argued.
Now, he obligingly fills a plastic container with gasoline, and shrugs as the youngster races off with it to refashion the roadblock by setting an automobile tire ablaze.
The children rule here.
To an extraordinary degree, Palestinian youths have seized the political initiative on the streets of Gaza and the nearby West Bank of the Jordan River in the past three months. Israel still retains ultimate control of the areas, captured in the Six-Day War of 1967, through its now-reinforced troop presence.
But Israeli soldiers find themselves - in almost ritual confrontations with stone-toting youngsters - reduced to playing out a politically damaging drama of armed occupier versus unarmed occupied on world television screens.
And also thrown on the defensive are the fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts, of the Palestinian children who have been playing the main front-line role in the uprising. Although many adults have long yearned for an end to Israeli occupation, the idea of taking to the streets represents a sharp break with the conservative traditions of Palestinian society.
The intellectual direction of the uprising is being provided in large part by West Bankers in their twenties or thirties who, as students in high schools and universities, helped coin a distinctly local brand of Palestinian nationalism. Their avowed aim is to force the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that would be independent both of Israel and of neighboring Arab states such as Jordan.
Their reasoning is that the present uprising - deliberately avoiding the use of gunfire in favor of stones and roadblocks - has offered an unprecedented chance to galvanize world support for such an option.
But on the front line, the unrest is being spearheaded by Palestinians in their mere teens, or even younger. In the squalid dirt alleyways of Gaza or back roads of West Bank towns, the youths routinely block roads in implicit challenge not only to the Israelis, but to the large number of local Palestinians who have long commuted to work inside Israel.
The minimum acceptable ``password'' required of the adults is the Churchillian ``V''-for-victory sign, unofficial emblem of the uprising. Sometimes, that is not enough. ``Go back to Israel where you work!'' shouted the Gazan youth at a returning carload of Palestinians when he'd finished reerecting his roadblock. When the driver made as if to protest, he took after the car with stones.
Despite such incidents, the uprising's child-footsoldiers still seem subject to the discipline of its political strategists. On the crucial decision not to use firearms, the line is holding firm - at least for now.
Nevertheless, at least some West Bankers privately express concern that the rank-and-file youngsters may generally become more militant and less subject to anyone's political directives or control.
One prominent local Arab political figure speaks of the ``intoxication'' he senses among the young stone-throwers. The reference is to a sudden sense ``of being unafraid'' of the Israelis whose rule they had come to accept as unchallengable. But the lesson of other conflicts - Lebanon, or South Africa - is that the youngsters' simple, nonpolitcal enjoyment of sudden power over adult authority figures could prove an even more political narcotic.
What is certain is that adults have ceased to call the political tune here. A confrontation with troops after Friday prayers this past week in Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, illustrated the new balance.
As this and several other reporters gazed on, a group of youngsters led by a teenager in a ski parka unfurled Palestinian flags, juggled jagged stones in their hands, and marched out to meet awaiting Israeli units. On the sidewalk, a few older residents seemed anxious to prove their own ``resistance'' credentials.
``Ya shebab, jesh!'' cried a middle-aged man. ``Kids, watch out, the Army is approaching!''
When, as in earlier weeks, the rocks flew and the Army fired teargas cartridges and rubber bullets in reply, the man ducked instantly into an alleyway. ``This happens week after week,'' he sighed when it was all over. ``Who can say where it will end?''
In Gaza's Jabaliyah refugee camp, a man in his 30s provides one answer. Pointing out a 3-year-old girl named Sanaa with a bruise on her face, he says the injury came in a clash with police.
``Who do you want to rule us?'' he asks the child in Arabic. ``The Israelis?''
``No,'' she says.
``Who is our leader?''
``Arafat,'' she answers, reflecting the almost universal, if perhaps symbolic, support here for Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat.
Then, with a vacant gaze, she forms her tiny fingers into a ``V'' sign.
[Reuters reported Monday that Israeli Army officials said they were imposing a curfew on the Gaza Strip, to prevent ``hostile'' elements from entering. Officials said they would close the entrances and bar residents from leaving their homes between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.
Also Monday, Arab reports said 150 Arab policemen in Gaza said they would quit, joining hundreds of officers who have turned in their badges in the West Bank. Israeli authorities acknowledged some resignations but gave no number.]