At the edge of the casbah, Colonel Noam Tibon and his patrol funnel from their jeeps and spread out. It's 1 a.m. and the dark streets of Nablus, under curfew for almost four months, are deserted. Twelve hours ago, a Palestinian gunman shot two Israeli border policemen on this spot. Even now, the shadows and silence are deceptive. "If we stand here a few more minutes, they'll shoot at us," says Tibon, the 40-year-old commander of the Nahal Brigade. In those circumstances, most people would leave right away. But Tibon plans to stay.
Israel's reoccupation of the West Bank has entered a new phase. The big battles of the spring are over, and Israel's soldiers are now in or around every major Palestinian town. Tibon's Nahal Brigade has the toughest assignment in the West Bank, guarding this city where 80% of the intifadeh's suicide bombings have been planned. Fighting is more intense right now in Gaza last week Israeli troops there killed 11 and wounded as many as 75 but Tibon's task is more difficult and nuanced: he must track Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank without starving or killing innocents or getting his own men killed. In a place where two out of three live below the poverty line, he has to fight terror without fomenting it. It's a task that much of the world believes is impossible, but Tibon thinks it can be done. To do it, he has to instill routines into young conscripts who have known only the disorder of war.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited Washington last week, where U.S. officials pressed him over the mounting civilian deaths among Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli army. Two years into the intifadeh, Israel faces many of the same frustrations that confront the U.S. 12 months into its "war on terror." "You need patience or you'll make mistakes," says Tibon, who took control in Nablus two months ago, after a year-long leave at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. "There can be no knockout, just a victory on points," he says a surprising admission from a man tipped by Israeli military analysts as a favorite to become the army's Chief of Staff in five to 10 years.
Born on a kibbutz in northern Israel, Tibon lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and two daughters. His is the difficult life of a soldier, often away from his family for weeks at a time, because his "basic belief is that Israel is in the middle of a 100-year war."
Tibon prosecutes that war from Tel Haras base, high on Mount Gerizim. From this bastion, Tibon can pick out a handful of Palestinian cars far below on the otherwise empty streets of Nablus. Israeli tanks are the only other presence on the roads. Tibon discusses supplies of food and medicine to the city's 200,000 residents with one of his officers. As he sees it, he has to balance military pressure with the need to avoid "a humanitarian disaster." It's a risky line to walk and Tibon knows it: in August, he sent two soldiers to military jail when they shot dead a municipal electrician even though the man had permission to move about during the curfew.
Shots echo up the mountainside at midday. In Tibon's command center, radios crackle with reports that two border policemen have been hit after their jeep broke down near the Casbah. It'll be past midnight when Tibon visits the scene; right now he must coordinate the evacuation of the two men, who have leg wounds. But he can't disguise his annoyance that the jeep was alone at such an obviously dangerous flashpoint in the first place, and he issues firm orders to border police commanders not to send their men into Nablus without his knowledge.
Tibon strides to an observation point and trains his binoculars on the ambush site. He's ordered retaliation on the area from which the Palestinian shots originated. The thumping reports of a tank machine gun crash around the valley. "It's a punishment," he says. "Nobody's going to shoot at my soldiers and get away with it." If the surrounding houses are damaged, Tibon believes that Palestinian residents will press the gunmen not to attack from there again.
Tibon says the message is getting through; he insists that Palestinians are losing patience with Hamas and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militants behind the attacks. If it wasn't for the guns and the bombs of those groups, he points out, there'd be no curfew and the 20,000 men who used to work in Israel could return to employment. Building such murmurs into real pressure on the terrorists who plan the suicide bombs is Tibon's task.
He's had some success. In his first six weeks on the job, Tibon's men nabbed 10 suicide bombers only a day or two before their deadly missions. And there are less dramatic arrests every night, more than 2,000 since Tibon took over. Last month, an operation in the Balata refugee camp on the edge of Nablus netted Lou'i Abdo, a prominent member of the Tanzim, part of the militant wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction. But Tibon's terrorist hunt isn't focused on the top suspects on the wanted list. Instead, he works from the bottom up. That way, he figures, the master-terrorists lose their support network and, when Israel eventually tracks them down, there'll be no deputies left to replace them.
In the small hours of the morning, Tibon's jeep pulls up at Joseph's Tomb. Palestinians say it's the tomb of an old sheik, but it was a Jewish seminary until rioters from surrounding Nablus neighborhoods overran it early in the intifadeh. "This is a piece of history," whispers Tibon. "The riot here was a turning point in the intifadeh" because the Israeli army hesitated to rescue one of its soldiers as he bled to death and then had to retreat in the face of a Palestinian onslaught. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reached another standoff. The violence in the West Bank is giving way to Israeli consolidation, but a deadly fury remains below the surface, lurking in the shadows of the empty streets of Nablus.