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‘President of the West Bank’ : Israeli Tries to Keep Peace and Not Treat Arabs as Foe

Times Staff Writer

The area commander in the lead Chevrolet Blazer didn’t notice them, but Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna, who jokingly calls himself “president of the West Bank,” did.

A few dozen youths, barely visible from the main road, chanted defiantly beside a makeshift barricade about 150 yards inside the El Arrub Palestinian refugee camp.

Mitzna, who is formally the head of the Israeli army’s Central Command, ordered his driver to stop. He crossed the road to a dozen unhappy reserve soldiers sheltering themselves from a driving rain against the side of a building at the camp entrance.

“What are you doing here?” the officer asked one of the soldiers.

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“Staying out of sight,” the man replied.

“What do you mean, ‘staying out of sight’?” Mitzna demanded. “Follow me!”

At that, the slender, bearded, 43-year-old general sprinted down a narrow lane toward the youths, his men behind him straining under the weight of their rifles, helmets and ponchos. The youths threw a few stones and scattered, disappearing into the crevices of the crowded camp. The whole thing was over in about a minute.

And on the way back to his car, Mitzna stopped briefly for a friendly chat with an Arab shopkeeper near the remnants of a 20-foot-high perimeter fence that he had previously ordered removed as a needless affront to the residents.

The scene told a lot about Mitzna, a product of Israel’s leftist kibbutz movement who finds himself policing 800,000 angry Palestinians during the most widespread unrest since Israel captured the West Bank of the Jordan River in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Roosevelt Philosophy

Like President Theodore Roosevelt, his philosophy is, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

The credo was on display Tuesday during five hours in which a Times correspondent joined Mitzna for a tour of the southern portion of the West Bank--the part known here by its biblical name of Judea.

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It was a day in which:

-- Mitzna the soldier closed all schools and universities on the West Bank, while Mitzna the kibbutznik gave his driver a stern, two-minute lecture for being discourteous to Arab motorists and pedestrians.

-- The soldier called in reinforcements to force open shuttered Arab shops in Hebron, while the kibbutznik ordered an Israeli guard to find shelter for Palestinians forced to wait in the rain outside army headquarters.

-- The soldier kept some 130,000 Palestinians prisoner in their own homes under strict curfews, while the kibbutznik boasted about his 18-year-old daughter marching in “Peace Now” demonstrations against Israeli policies on the West Bank.

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Son of Immigrants

The son of German Jewish immigrants who thought that by the time he came of age Israel would no longer need an army, Mitzna today is a 25-year veteran of three wars and one of the most senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces.

He was wounded in two of those conflicts--1967 and 1973--and is famous for having called publicly in 1982 for the resignation of then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, considered the architect of Israel’s ill-fated war in Lebanon. A bitter Sharon, it is said, still refers to him only as “that officer.”

Mitzna was also in command of the troops who forced angry Jewish settlers out of Yamit, in the Sinai Peninsula, after the territory was returned to Egypt under that country’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

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But for all of his service, the kibbutznik had never come face to face with the reality of the army’s policing mission in the occupied territories until he was put in charge of the Central Command last May. It was, he said Tuesday, “a very long time ago.”

His duties extend beyond the West Bank--he is responsible for guarding a long stretch of Israel’s eastern border, for example. But here in the occupied areas, he sees his job as twofold: to maintain order and as normal a life as possible for the population, and to prevent his men from treating “every Arab as an enemy.”

Avoid Another Lebanon

“It’s very easy for the soldiers to get into a state of mind like in Lebanon, where when we first got there people were shouting and cheering, but later they all became enemies, at least in the soldiers’ eyes,” Mitzna said. At the same time, he added, it is vital that the army instill, if not fear, at least a healthy respect in the population.

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Are the two tasks compatible?

“There are a lot of my friends and my commanders who think it’s not possible,” he conceded. However, he added, “I disagree, because if it’s not possible, then we’ve really lost the chance to bring back the status quo for at least long enough to let the politicians work out a solution.”

Mitzna said the situation reminded him of the words of the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir: “We don’t have the privilege to be pessimistic, because we don’t have any other alternative.”

During nearly eight weeks of unrest, 13 Palestinians have been shot to death by Israeli gunfire on the West Bank--the latest two on Monday. At least 25 have died in the Gaza Strip, which is under the army’s Southern Command, although the situation there has appeared quieter in recent days than it has in Mitzna’s domain.

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Schools Closed

As a result, Mitzna has cracked down harder, closing schools and universities and putting the West Bank’s largest city, Nablus, under a full curfew for the first time in recent memory. Six West Bank villages and refugee camps were also under curfew Tuesday.

Mitzna visited one of them during Tuesday’s tour--Bani Naim, a village about five miles east of Hebron with a population of about 6,000. Only soldiers were visible in the town, and they clearly wanted to leave. But Mitzna said the curfew, imposed after widespread demonstrations Monday, should remain in place for a few more days.

“If we lift it now, it will happen again tomorrow or the day after,” Mitzna told an officer on the scene. “We have to arrest some people. I don’t want (the villagers) to think they can easily block the roads here.”

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“It’s not just a curfew for them to rest in their homes,” Mitzna explained later. “I want them to learn a lesson. . . . What I’m trying to do is, if there is silence and they are leading normal lives, they will not see even one soldier. But when they go to the streets and riot, then I will bring the army, and they will feel it. I want people to clearly understand the difference.”

Shops Opened

In Hebron, there was lots of traffic on the roads Tuesday, but all the stores were shuttered about mid-morning. Merchants stood outside their businesses in the fog and drizzle.

“The soldiers have to come,” Mitzna decided, and he called for more troops to force open the first shops. “If you don’t come, they’ll be disappointed in you,” he quipped over his Blazer’s military radio, alluding to the army’s belief that most merchants want to open but are afraid to do so without the “cover” of a military show of force.

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It’s important that the shops be open for two reasons, he told a reporter. “From a security point of view, it brings normality to the streets,” he said. Also, the army is responsible for ensuring that people have the services they need.

On another controversial tactic, Mitzna endorsed the government’s policy of using physical force, including beatings, to put down demonstrations. “If you catch somebody while throwing stones, you have to give him a lesson,” the officer said.

Some Beatings Conceded

He conceded there have been “exceptions” in which soldiers had beaten Palestinian prisoners or innocent bystanders, and he said that the public announcement of the policy last month may have given some troops the wrong idea.

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“It took a few days to realize that we have a problem,” he said. But now, he claimed, there are fewer “exceptions,” and he discounted fears that the soldiers may have already crossed a moral threshold. “There are some who are beating so hard, and beating with all their hearts,” he said. “But I don’t think it is a phenomena.”

With the aid of a driving rain for much of the day, Tuesday passed relatively quietly in the West Bank, and for the moment, at least, Mitzna thinks the situation is again under control.

“I am very proud of what we are doing,” he said, “even with the exceptions. I don’t think there is even one nation that would behave in such a situation as we are behaving.”

And as for the criticism, both here and abroad, Mitzna commented: “You have to have a tough skin and believe in what you’re doing. Because you will be criticized no matter what you do.”

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