Dodging rocks and rubber bullets

At least 89 people, mostly Palestinians, have died in the past 12 days of violence.

Clustered behind a three-story building on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah, the young men of Palestine take a moment to show a visitor what Israeli rubber-tipped bullets have done: One shows off a scab on his shoulder, another peels open the tape and gauze on his belly, a third unveils the bandages on his upper arm.

One young man, his hair all curls on top and shorn to a crewcut on the back and sides, fingers two stones and his cord-and-plastic sling. He is not afraid of the Israelis around the corner, he is not afraid of bullets, he is not afraid of anything. "We are happy to face death," he says, smiling and breathing heavily from the exertions of his stone throwing.

Face death they do. This road, leading north toward Nablus, is what is gently known as a "point of contact," a place where Palestinian protesters come to confront a small group of Israeli troops.

The road leads from Ramallah, where Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority provides the police and the local governance, into a zone where Israel is responsible for security. Since the Palestinians began their latest uprising nearly two weeks ago, perhaps 10 of them have died here. Overall at least 89 people have died, including a small number of Israeli security personnel.

Playing their parts

Despite the killing, the clashes have taken on the air of routine.

The Israelis sit in jeeps at one end of a stretch where the road is divided by a median. They have commandeered a nearby hotel and an apartment building, and watch over the situation from on high. They are well armed, well protected, and edgy. Three soldiers refuse to speak to a reporter.

The young Palestinian men take cover behind buildings on the side of the road and on the hills above. Farther back, groups of people stand on the sidewalk and watch. All but a few are men. The closer to the jeeps, the younger the men.

First comes the throwing and slinging of stones, usually around mid-day. The ground around the jeeps is littered with chunks of rock, bits of the land that is at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Occasionally some of the young men step out in front of the Israelis and wave a Palestinian flag or throw a Molotov cocktail. The Israelis reply with loud explosives that don't fling shrapnel but send jitters rippling through the crowd of bystanders. They fire the occasional canister of tear gas and round upon round of metal bullets encased in black rubber.

When someone is hurt, one of several ambulances parked behind the onlookers rouses itself and starts forward with sirens wailing and lights flashing. When it reaches the front line, the friends of the fallen Palestinian lug him into the back of the vehicle, which speeds back toward Ramallah. The young men resume their positions.

The danger is that tensions and tempers will rise and bring someone to the point of taking aim with a real bullet. In recent clashes it has been unclear who has started shooting first, but there is no doubt that Palestinians have shot at the Israelis. The reverse is also true, and the Palestinians can point to several young men who have died from gunshot wounds.

Even though the Israelis are uncommunicative, the dynamics on their side of the conflict are easy to discern. They are an unpopular army in the midst of an angry people. The soldiers are trying to protect themselves and their position and occasionally use deadly force to do so.

Things are murkier on the Palestinian side, where many people are eager to talk about their rage, their cause, their trampled dignity. At the back of the crowd a man with a walkie-talkie, a mobile telephone, and an automatic pistol shoved into his belt explains that he is with the Palestinian intelligence service, one of Mr. Arafat's many security forces, but will say no more.

Black SUVs filled with burly men, some carrying automatic rifles, patrol the area. The vehicles bear the red-and-white license plates of the Palestinian security forces.

Further up the road, just out of sight of the point of contact, clusters of Palestinian police and paramilitary troops stand guard, well armed but seemingly uninterested in confronting the Israelis. If they were to do so, the body counts would undoubtedly skyrocket.

Behind the scenes

And milling among the onlookers, watching the young men throw their stones, are the local leaders of Fatah, the mainstream faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization led by Arafat. Kadoura Fares, a part of Fatah's "field leadership" and a member of the Palestinian legislature, is coy about the level of organization and control that exists below the surface. "It's not like an army," he says, "where you have 500 soldiers and you tell them to go there and they go. It's a public demonstration." But he acknowledges that it is an "organized" demonstration. These demonstrations are an expression of the Palestinian will that is outside the control of the Palestinian leader, Mr. Fares continues. "Arafat can't make a decision which is completely opposite to the general opinion," he says.

That opinion is to oppose Israel in the streets, which is exactly what Fares and his colleagues want, even if the young man with the sling says that he doesn't go out to throw stones at Israeli troops on behalf of Fatah. "I go on behalf of Palestine."

Still, Fatah released a leaflet over the weekend calling for the continuation of the uprising, and instructing stores to close in the early afternoon. Fatah is also encouraging schools to resume their classes, and they will release their students in the early afternoon, as is normal. That will leave lots of young men and boys with nothing to do but pick up stones.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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