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 bulldozed.

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

Bottom Navigation Home Archives Contact Us About In These Times Subscribe to In These Times