Published on Sunday, October 8, 2000 in the London Observer
Child Martyrs Line Up To Die
by Jason Burke in Jerusalem
|For the stone-throwers it was a rare victory. For once they had triumphed against the sniper rifles and machine guns of the Israeli Army.
At dawn yesterday a squad of 10 Israeli border policemen abandoned the bunkers in the West Bank town of Nablus where they had been besieged for nine days and made their way back to less exposed positions. On their way, one was shot and wounded.
US Arab-American Community
US Arab-American Community
The withdrawal from Nablus was made on the orders of the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak. It was the first time that Israeli forces have been forced to pull back as a result of Palestinian violence, and a deeply significant moment.
But if the move was meant to put an end to the unrest engulfing Israel and the Palestinian territories, it failed. Clashes recurred yesterday in Gaza and spread elsewhere. Israeli troops killed at least one Palestinian after opening fire on a demonstration at the Lebanese border.
More than 80 people have died and 2,000 have been injured in the violence of the last 10 days. Almost all have been Palestinian, and most have been young.
Earlier last week, at the major flashpoint of Netzarim Junction in Gaza, The Observer' s reporter watched close hand as angry and excited Arab youths hurled themselves in front of the Israeli guns. They started huddled against a breeze-block wall. Most were stripped to the waist, their bodies black with soot from petrol bombs and streaked by sweat. In their hands were rocks, Palestinian flags and bottles.
In twos and threes they leapt through a gap in the wall and charged towards the squat bunkers of the base 30 yards away. Behind them scores more youths, and a handful of older men, shouted encouragement. The air was full of the crackle of flames and shouts of ' Allahu akbar ' (God is great).
Every 15 or so minutes, the welter of noise was sliced by a single, sharp report. Each time, with his features twisted in pain, a young man, a youth or a boy aged no older than 10 was carried from the rubble to the ambulances waiting yards away. For hours, the pattern continued. The youths rushed forward, hurling their petrol bombs and bricks. The Israelis carefully, clinically, deliberately dropped one. And the youths merely regrouped and came forward again. They were literally lining up to die.
Last week saw mayhem and carnage in Israel and the Palestinian Territories of Gaza and the West Bank on a scale not seen for decades. This troubled land's fate is now in the hands of the extremists, the bigots and the violent. The moderate majority on both sides can only look on in horror. The televised shooting of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durrah and his father, Jamal, at Netzarim Junction has shaken the country.
The Israelis are now asking themselves: how can such killing ever be justified? Was it too many or too few concessions to the Palestinians that caused the explosion? Can the fragile minority government of Prime Minister Barak - who was elected as a peacemaker in May last year - survive the crisis? A newspaper poll last week showed that more than 70 per cent of Israelis felt that the future existence of their country was in doubt.
And questions are also being asked in the scrappy, rundown towns and refugee camps run by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Was the violence orchestrated? Is there any truth in Israeli accusations that their leader has knowingly been sending young Palestinians out to die to score political points? Is it time, they are asking, to forget negotiations and rely on the gun?
In the town of Beni Suhaila, in the middle of the 30-mile-long Gaza Strip, they have an answer to the latter, at least.
On Wednesday, Mohammed Abu-Assi, an 11-year-old shot dead while throwing stones the day before, was buried. Thousands filled the street to follow his open coffin. Many mourners carried automatic weapons. Some of them carried the green flag of Hamas - the Islamic group responsible for suicide-bomb attacks.
The boy's grieving female relatives watched the procession. His younger sister wept. But Umralib, his mother, said she would shed no tears. 'He is a martyr. He is in paradise. He died as a sacrifice for his religion and for our city of Jerusalem. This struggle must go on. There has been enough talking. It is time to fight.'
The recent unrest was sparked when, 10 days ago, the veteran right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon, guarded by 1,000 police, visited al-Aqsa's hilltop compound in Jerusalem's walled Old City. His aim was to underline Jewish sovereignty over the site, the third most holy place in Islam, and over Jerusalem as a whole. For Jews, the site is also sacred. But Muslims felt the visit of Sharon, who has a brutal record, violated the sanctity of the shrine - and riots broke out. Within days, the Israelis had deployed tanks.
A new religious element fuelled the fighting. A hastily drawn picture on the wall of Mohammed Abu-Assi's home in Beni Suhaila showed the boy's body being borne to paradise with the words 'al-Aqsa' issuing from his mouth. As youths rioted, they shouted the name of the mosque - a rallying cry to Muslims throughout the world. In other Islamic countries there were violent demonstrations in support.
But the roots of the Palestinian anger lie deeper - in resentment over the glacial pace of the peace process and their appalling economic conditions. Israelis were particularly shocked to see, for the first time, significant numbers of the million or so Arabs who are Israeli citizens taking to the barricades in Galilee.
'We talk and talk for years and nothing happens. So maybe this is the only way. I may be an Israeli citizen, but I am a Muslim and a Palestinian first,' said Hussein, an east Jerusalem market trader, last week.
Elsewhere the scenes were more familiar. Gaza, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Nablus were all key sites during the previous 'Intifada' ('shaking off') in the late Eighties.
At Netzarim and Ramallah, the focus of anger were the settlements set up by hardline Jews.
'Why are they here? This is our land,' said a heavily armed PNA security officer visiting the wounded in Ramallah hospital. He said a gun battle had broken out after the settlers on the hill above the town fired on Palestinian homes. Two local youths had been killed.
The settlers say local Palestinian youths - and PNA security officials - often shoot at their houses. Sometimes, they said, they returned fire.
The settlers are not popular in Israel. A recent poll showed that 51 per cent of Israeli Jews called themselves 'secular'. Many of the soldiers assigned to protect the settlers see them as troublemakers.
But it is also clear that the violence can be controlled. On Wednesday, while negotiations continued in Paris between Barak and Arafat, the riots were small-scale. On Friday - declared a 'day of rage' by the Palestinian leadership - Jerusalem and Gaza erupted.
There is little hope of a swift end to the chaos engulfing the county, although Barak's order to withdraw from Nablus may help calm things down. However, his weak political position prohibits major concessions. Yesterday the moderates remained unheard and the extremists dug in.
Benny Elon, a right-wing Israeli politician, admitted that the Israelis had lost a battle last week. But, he told me, they 'would win the war'.
Abdullah al-Masri, a senior Palestinian security officer at Netzarim Junction, pledged the same. 'We will go on until we have spilt every drop of our blood. The future is black. The clouds will rain bullets.'