NABLUS, West Bank -- In the span of a single day last week, Israeli soldiers guarding a Jewish shrine in Nablus worked peacefully alongside Palestinian police, exchanged gunfire with them and then found themselves under the policemen's protection.
On that Thursday, stone-throwing Palestinians had converged on Joseph's Tomb, a small, white-domed building that tradition says contains Joseph's remains. Palestinian police tried to hold back the crowd. When Israeli soldiers fired to protect themselves, the police fired back at the Israelis.
Outnumbered, and surrounded by their own dead, the Israelis gave up the fight. But the police then protected the Israelis from a hostile crowd. In that firefight, colleague became enemy, and then enemy became protector -- and the military realities of the region might have changed.
Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers have warily returned to their posts. But Israel's top military commanders realize that the "givens" are different.
"As far as we're concerned, there is a completely new situation in the field," said General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Israel's army chief of staff.
"There's been some sort of turning point," said Yitzchak Mordechai, Israel's defense minister.
The Palestinian police -- a force created by the 1993 peace accords between Israel and the Palestinian authority -- are no longer as they were a week ago.
They were envisioned as a force that would combat terrorism, fight crime in Palestinian cities and perhaps one day protect Jews living in their midst.
Agreements itemized the number of police, weapons and pieces of equipment for each Palestinian town.
And for nearly a year, Israeli soldiers worked jointly with police in Nablus and elsewhere. A spirit of cooperation and consultation prevailed -- until last Wednesday, when the first clashes began between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in Ramallah.
Over the next three days, Palestinian police struggled to restrain unruly crowds but also refused to stand by when they saw Palestinians falling to rubber bullets and live ammunition fired by Israelis.
Some of the Palestinian police fired back. Thus Israelis' worst fears were realized: The guns of the Palestinians had been turned on Israelis.
The Palestinian police, derided in the past for brutality, meanwhile won praise from their own people.
As the gunfire sounded in Ramallah, Sammy Dweik applauded the actions of police who confronted the Israelis.
"Now we have people defending our land, weapon against weapon," said Dweik, who was among the hundreds of people who marched to an Israeli checkpoint to protest the injuries and deaths from the first day of clashes. "We were in darkness; now we are under the sun."
Perched on a rooftop, Rami Adibs watched in wonder as Palestinian soldiers tried to clear the streets of unarmed protesters, while trading gunfire with the approaching Israeli forces.
"It's wonderful that I see Palestinian soldiers protecting me and protecting the people from the Israeli army," said the 22-year-old student.
Palestinian police said they fired at Israelis in self-defense and to protect unarmed civilians.
But their actions eroded a fragile relationship with the Israelis.
"It's very complicated because nobody knows exactly who is going to be an enemy or when he is going to be a friend," said Avraham Roten, a retired general and researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
He added, "If you know for sure the Palestinian is the enemy, it makes it simple. But once you have to behave as this is your friend, this is the one who cooperates with you when you have a problem in the field, and then he starts shooting at you -- you can't live with that."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu illustrated the problem last week during a televised news conference:
"I have just been visiting our wounded soldiers, nine of them," Netanyahu said. "One of the nine said to me that they definitely identified Palestinian policemen. One of them said, 'I saw him shoot me. I know he was a Palestinian policeman because he was on the joint patrol with me the day before, and he shot me.' "
Roten said Israeli commanders have been teaching their soldiers for the past two years to view Palestinian police as partners in peace. "It's not just that we are Israelis and they are Palestinians. This is 'Mohammad' and 'Reuven,' " he said. "The entire arrangement is now on a question mark. Can we rely on them or not?"
Although more than 60 people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the clashes, Roten and others said that Israeli armed forces used restraint and that the death toll could have been higher, given the Israeli military's firepower.
"Only the self-restraint, courage and devotion avoided much wider disaster and a kind of irreversible collapse of the whole agreement," said Ehud Barak, former chief of staff and foreign minister under the Labor government.
For Israeli opponents of the 1993 peace accords, the graphic scenes of running gunbattles between Palestinians and Israelis are ready ammunition. Israelis who favor keeping the West Bank city of Hebron under Israeli control find that recent events support their view -- that Israel should not surrender more land or authority.
Efraim Sneh, a former minister in the Labor government that negotiated the peace agreements with the Palestinians, argues a different point.
"There is no doubt we will have to work very hard to restore the relations between the two militaries to the former level," said Sneh, a retired general. "But it's mainly the role of the political leadership. If Netanyahu and Arafat will come to an agreement to continue the dialogue in a good spirit, I'm sure it can trickle down to the officers and soldiers on the ground.' "
Sneh said violence erupted because Prime Minister Netanyahu sent a signal to the Palestinian people that the current peace agreement would be frozen into a "permanent arrangement," thus ending dreams of an independent Palestinian state.
The violence of the last week, he said, "does not change the need to live together and to fight together the enemies of peace."
In Nablus, a group of Palestinian police talked about the violence at Joseph's Tomb, the first real battle between police and Israeli soldiers. Six Israelis died in the firefight, and eight others were wounded.
Dressed in olive green uniforms and red berets, the police officers wore the emblem of an elite Palestinian force.
They defended their actions in the fighting, and described it as a victory of sorts.
"It is not a matter of being proud," said a 25-year-old policeman. "We were defending peace. They told us they were for peace. But at the moment they kill children or teen-agers, then we have the right to defend our people and our land."
In the end, with the soldiers trapped inside the tomb, the Palestinian police took the Israelis captive. "Military law says military captives have to be protected," the policeman said, "because they are people like me."
Pub Date: 9/29/96