It is a harrowing dance. At the flashpoints--the places in the
West Bank where Palestinian-controlled areas adjoin those under
Israeli control--boys and young men hurl stones and Molotov cocktails
at Israeli army jeeps. The Israeli soldiers take aim behind the
doors of their vehicles. Sometimes the Palestinians are successful
in pushing the jeeps back a few yards into Israeli territory. More
often, the whine of a waiting ambulance comes closer to rush a wounded
Palestinian to an already-crowded hospital.
The popular unrest began on September 28, when right-wing Israeli
politician Ariel Sharon visited Jerusalem's Haram al Sharif along
with hundreds of Israeli security officers. Angered by the thought
of Sharon, architect of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, at the
holy Islamic site, Palestinians protested and scuffles broke out.
The next day, at Friday prayers, Israeli soldiers entered the mosque,
shooting live and
rubber-coated ammunition and killing several Palestinians. While Israeli
security officials say that no shots were fired until Palestinian
stones began flying onto the Western Wall where Jews pray, eyewitnesses
say that Israeli police fired first. Since then, clashes have resulted
in funerals and more angry demonstrations. As In These Times
went to press, Israeli helicopter gunships were bombing Ramallah and
Gaza, including the compound of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
The death toll was nearing 100 Palestinians with more than 2,500 wounded.
Five Israeli soldiers have been killed in the fighting.
Israel was ready for this, its defense officials say. After bloody
clashes in 1996, the Israeli Defense Forces beefed up their sniper
units in the West Bank and Gaza, military sources recently boasted
to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. During the long hours of clashes,
the camouflaged snipers can be seen among the trees, carefully firing
long-range, high-caliber rifles at Palestinian protesters.
The Israeli use of snipers caused Palestinian planning minister
Nabil Shaath to accuse the Israeli government of "premeditated murder."
Israeli minister of public security David Tsur responded that snipers
had been used after Friday prayers at the holy Muslim shrines, but
that soldiers only shot at the legs of protesters. The Palestinian
ministry of health, however, says that at least 40 percent of Palestinian
casualties have come from head and chest wounds. The vast majority
of deaths have occurred when rubber-coated metal bullets explode
inside the wounded, say doctors.
At dusk, the big guns take over. In Ramallah, artillery shelling
begins at night, coming from the direction of an Israeli settlement.
In Gaza, two brand new apartment buildings and a Palestinian police
headquarters were shot to rubble by Israeli artillery fire and then
Early on, Palestinians themselves could be heard echoing the Israeli
sentiment that Arafat was orchestrating violence for a reason. Israel
claims that Arafat orchestrated the original demonstrations to force
Israel to make concessions in negotiations over a final status agreement.
"It's a shame that so many have to die for an agreement," said one
young Arafat supporter after the first wave of deaths.
But those Palestinian voices have grown silent. The surprise explosion
of the Arab communities inside Israel, where 12 demonstrators have
died from Israeli bullets, is only one indication of Palestinian
frustration with their lot. Public anger is so intense that some
are wondering if Arafat, who most recently enjoyed only a 40 percent
popularity rating, can bring the clashes to a close. "That means
that Mr. Arafat has to cancel the funerals," said Palestinian negotiator
Saeb Erekat in a televised interview. "My God, can't people see
the emotion, the anger, as Palestinians bury their dead?"
On October 10, Palestinians in Ramallah buried another casualty,
a 40-year-old father named Issam Hamad, who was out for a drive
and disappeared. Last seen near a settlement, his body was found
on the outskirts of town, bones broken and face scarred with burns.
Palestinians blame Israeli settlers in the West Bank for his clearly
tortured death. "It feels very unsafe here to be Arab," said his
cousin Marwan Hamad after his funeral.
Complicating the situation, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak must
soon either attempt to form a new government with the Israeli right
wing or hold new elections--a contest he is likely to lose. In the
last session of the Israeli Parliament, Barak's government was voted
out for suggestions he put forward at the Camp David summit with
Palestinians. And popular former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
was cleared of charges of fiscal irregularities, opening the way
for him to challenge Barak in new elections.
But speaking on October 7, after three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped
by Hezbollah on the Lebanese-Israeli border, Barak indicated that
he was shaping a unity government that would include the very Sharon
who set this tinder afire. Barak first gave Arafat 48 hours, and
then another four days, to mull over the thought of dealing with
the Israeli right wing in any future talks.
Sharon has said that he will not join in a unity government, but
will support Barak if he goes to war. Faced with a hostage situation
in Lebanon and unrest in the territories Israel occupies, that very
well may be where Barak is headed. The world has acknowledged this
by sending its emissaries out to Arab capitals and Israel to try
to ease the current crisis.
But Arafat is refusing to meet with Barak until the "violence against
Palestinians stops." He has not yet shut down the television stations
replaying nationalistic music and footage of the violence, a tacit
endorsement that the demonstrations go on. The anger that is now
boiling over in the territories and among Arabs in Israel has been
on the burner for months as Palestinians have watched the peace
process unfold with few real results. Arafat knows that if this
anger is not vented at Israel now, it could very well turn on him
and his government.
When asked if this is the end of the "peace process," Palestinian
leaders say that they will always be ready to return to the table.
After all, the very existence of Arafat's people in the territories
is beholden to the negotiations--it was talks with Israel that put
them in charge of the portions of land in the West Bank and Gaza
that Palestinians now control. It seems that it is Israel who will
decide when the fighting is no longer just an outbreak of violence,
but a return to war. Barak may have just closed that