Ramallah, West Bank
Most afternoons, the boys head from their schools down to the edge of town where Israeli tanks and soldiers are standing by to watch unarmed children wage war. A wide road heads from the center of Ramallah downhill towards a hotel, the City Inn, where the Israeli army has set up shop. From there, it rises again towards a settlement, an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) base and the military court at Beit El. The kids, whose ages range from twelve to twenty-eight, mill around until a few of the bolder ones walk towards the line that demarcates the Israeli zone. When they are about eighty yards from the Israeli troops, they throw a few stones. The Israeli soldiers in tanks or on foot in riot gear ignore them. Then a few more boys join the stone-throwing, although the greater number of them hold back. In the midst of the crowd, a man with a huge brass pot sells coffee. We could have brought picnics.
Stones fly through the air without hitting the soldiers, who are, anyway, out of range. The boys return in triumph to those who lagged behind. People talk , drink coffee and watch the occupation army down the road. Then a few more lads go forth for another bout of rock-throwing. The Israelis, apparently bored and impatient with the Palestinians' afternoon entertainment, fire heavy machine gun bursts. The stone throwers run back into the crowd, which itself retreats up the road to hide behind the taller buildings. No one is hit. A little later, when the young men venture back onto the exposed road, one or two are felled by live rounds. Ambulances, which are parked near the crowd every day, rush the boys to a hospital in town.
In the first month of this Palestinian rebellion, the Israeli solidiers, police and settlers wounded 7,000 Palestinians. During the entire seven years of the first intifadah that ended in 1993, the total number of Palestinian wounded was 18,000. At the present rate of injury, the Israelis could wound 84,000 people in a year - or an astounding 588,000 if this intifadah lasts as long as the first. So far, 240 people have died, about 220 of them Palestinian and twenty Israeli. Lest this battle seem about body counts and kill ratios, neither side is killing and maiming the other with the objective of annihilation. Violence is a way of sending messages to the other side. The Palestinians are saying they want independence within the pre-1967 borders of the West Bank and Gaza, without settlements and soldiers robbing their independence of meaning. The Israelis are clearly stating, with every round they fire into a crowd, that they cannot have it. At this stage, the deus should fly in on his machina and force the two sides to accept peace. However, the world's deus lives in Washington and is not imposing full decolonization of the occupied territories. Anything else seems unlikely to stop the blood draining from Palestinian and, in smaller numbers, Israeli veins.
One evening, I am sitting in a house in Ramallah with friends. Their twelve year old son tells me in fluent English about his school, then drifts off to watch television. Many cups of tea and coffee later, his father asks the family where the boy is. He has gone to one of the confrontation points, either to throw stones or watch his friends throw stones across an open field through a barbed wire fence at Israeli soldiers in a tin and sand-bag bunker. Later, he comes home unhurt. On another evening, they tell me, the local leader of Yasser Arafat's al-Fateh group, a 41 year old man named Moustafa Barghouti, came himself to order young men in a house nearby to stop shooting at an Israeli settlement on the hill above Ramallah. Reluctantly, they obeyed. Yet another night, someone set up a machine gun on a neighbor's roof and fired into the air. Everyone rushed out to tell him to stop, lest the Israelis in the settlement above rocket their houses. The young men folded up the gun and left.
Things are worse in Beit Jalla, a Christian village next to Bethlehem. Above it sits Gilo, which the Palestinians call a settlement and the Israelis a neighborhood. (It was built after 1967 in occupied territory on land confiscated from Palestinians. Israeli banks gave low-interest loans and the government subsidies to persuade people to move there.) The IDF closed the town, so I leave my car and walk over concrete barriers to get in. I visit the Amaya family, whose three-story house wears bullet holes in windows and walls to show it is one of the closest to Gilo. Each of the three Amaya brothers lives with his wife and children on a different floor. The children become terrified after dark. Elias Amaya, who is thirty-eight and runs a cellphone business, tells me that if anyone shoots at Gilo near his house, he tells him to stop. Not only because it invites Israeli tank and rocket fire, but because it is useless. (It may not be as useless as he thinks, because some Israelis have left Gilo in the last month. House prices, the greatest indicator of all, are collapsing.) Elias's sister-in-law said that, while some of her neighbors have died, she retains friendships with Israelis. Some have called offering to take her children in until the shooting stops. Elias says in words familiar to Israelis who settled in Palestine before 1948: "We need a real state. Not one without weapons, without borders. We need a minimum to live." This is a rebellion, across the West Bank and Gaza, against the two O's: Occupation and Oslo, under whose accords the occupation continues and the settlements expand.
The Israeli response to Palestinian attacks has been, to put it midly, disproportionate. The night after I left Beit Jalla, another Israeli rocket barrage killed a German physician who lived and worked in the town of 14,000 souls. Amnesty International issued a report on 19 October, and things are worse now, saying that "Israeli security forces repeatedly resorted to excessive use of lethal force in circumstances in which neither their lives nor the lives of others were in imminent danger, resulting in unlawful killings." Amnesty observers recorded the repeated use of CS gas, rubber-coated metal bullets and live ammunition. Yet, Amnesty wrote, the Israelis have experience of effective non-lethal crowd control. In July and August 1999, riots in Jerusalem "were policed without resort to firearms." Those demonstrators were Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who like some settlers in the last few weeks, confronted the army when it disagreed with Israeli policy. Amnesty noted that in fifty years of Israeli history "no demonstration organized by a Jewish group has ever been fired on, even by rubber bullets."