All the way up the West Bank, from Ramallah and Nablus to Jenin, the remains of burned tires litter the road. The iron-shuttered shops and empty streets and the high-speed Israeli Army trucks–headlights blazing, steel grills over their windows–tell their own story. For this is a land enduring a conflict that is fast turning into a war of Palestinian independence. Along the settlers’ roads the convoys hum, the settlers in their family cars with guns in the back, armored buses sandwiched between truckloads of troops. At the entrance to Jenin, the Palestinian police seem surprised to see us. How did we get through the Israeli checkpoints?
We avoided each checkpoint by driving off into the fields and making our way through olive groves and ancient stone villages to detour around the army. So much for Israeli security. Outside Yabad–a cold stone village in a fold of hills between Jenin and the sea–an Israeli officer warned us not to go further. “I wouldn’t go there,” he said. “There’s a funeral.” But the only disturbing thing about Yabad was its sorrow. Just a few hours before, Israeli soldiers had shot dead two brothers–Bilal and Hilal Salah–as they stood on a village embankment above a settlers’ road. Their eldest brother said they were shouting abuse. Another villager said they may have been throwing stones. They had grown up together, gone to school together, opened a small restaurant together, been shot in the head together and were now buried together.
What was it President Clinton said last week? That he wanted the youth of “both sides” to come together to help end the “violence”? But the youth to whom he was appealing are dying and killing. Bilal and Hilal Salah were 21 and 18, the soldiers who killed them probably little more than 20. The Israeli officer who warned me not to go to Yabad could not have been more than 25. The young are too busy fighting their war to worry about Clinton.
It is a curious reflection on this unfolding tragedy that Israel is able to set the daily news agenda. Can Arafat control his people? Are Palestinians deliberately putting their children in the line of fire? These questions were set by the Israeli government and duly parroted by CNN and the BBC World Service, each question effectively blaming the Palestinians for their own deaths at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Repeatedly, Palestinians shot in the head by Israelis were reported as having died in “clashes” or “crossfire,” as if their deaths were attributable to some natural disaster rather than to the wholesale Israeli use of live bullets, which, if employed against protesters by, say, the Serbs, would have elicited a world outcry.
In reality, Arafat’s “control” is irrelevant. It is the Palestinian people who are setting the limits to this armed intifada, who are effectively dictating the course of their war against the Israelis. There is no controlling agent–neither for stone-throwers nor for Palestinian policemen who fire at the Israelis nor for the mob that lynched two Israeli soldiers. Sheer despair at the perceived injustice of the Oslo agreement–a treaty that seemed certain to cheat them of a capital in East Jerusalem, a return of refugees and an end to massive Jewish settlements on occupied land–simply overwhelmed the clichés about the “peace process” and the need to put Oslo “back on track.”