By nightfall the Palestinian casualty toll had risen to 200 wounded in this and earlier confrontations, which began when Israeli troops fired on demonstrators marching on their checkpoint south of the town, which is under Palestinian self-rule.
Palestinian sources said the Israelis advanced into the Palestinian-controlled zone. An Israeli army spokesman denied it, saying Palestinian police refused a request to help restore order; the Israeli troops came under fire and shot back in self-defence.
The Palestinians were protesting at the opening of an archaeological tunnel this week which they claimed infringed their rights in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Smaller protests also took place in Jerusalem, Hebron and Gaza, but no serious casualties were reported.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian cabinet and who lives in Ramallah, saw the first clashes and later she visited the hospital in search of her 15-year-old daughter, Zeina.
"The Israeli army was going berserk," she told the Independent. "They were shooting with rubber bullets, plastic bullets, live ammunition. Then they moved forward into the Palestinian-controlled area, shooting at adults and kids. In Ramallah Hospital I saw one civilian ...with a bullet through the heart and lungs.
"It was like a massacre. People were being operated on in the corridors. The wounded were lying on stretchers all over the place. The doctors were appealing for extra medical staff and blood donors. They just couldn't cope.
"Mothers were desperately asking for their kids. I was looking for my own daughter. Fortunately, she was safe."
The shooting stopped before dusk, but Dr Ashrawi, a former spokeswoman for the Palestinian peace negotiators, defined the situation as a turning- point. "Things are drastic, very volatile, very dangerous."
The Israelis insisted they used live ammunition only after they had come under fire."During the incident light-weapons fire was aimed at our soldiers, who returned fire at its source," the spokesman said.
The Arab League is meeting in emergency session in Cairo today to discuss the crisis and yesterday the Palestinians postponed the resumption of peace negotiations scheduled for today. These would have been the first substantive talks since Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing government came to power in Israel three months ago.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, said: "This government has failed to honour even one point of the peace agreement. Netanyahu is taking us back to the era of violence and counter-violence."
But Dr Erakat was careful not to write off the negotiations permanently. The alternative would be a freeze on the peace process, which is just what Mr Netanyahu's right-wing and religious voters would like.Reuse content