Anniversary is marked by gunfire and death

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The boy was wearing a yellow T-shirt, the glazed expression of a person in shock, and two fresh medical dressings, already stained by blood.

The boy was wearing a yellow T-shirt, the glazed expression of a person in shock, and two fresh medical dressings, already stained by blood.

All week, reports had been flowing into his home city of Hebron of ceasefires, truces, new negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, brought back to life by Washington's need to recruit the Arab world to tackle terror.

But yesterday – on the first anniversary of the al-Aqsa intifada – 14-year-old Nidal Kipnani discovered the hollowness of all these diplomatic manoeuvrings.

It was a lesson administered by two Israeli bullets, one that nicked his shoulder and another that hit the side of his body, just above the waist. He said he was hit by random fire from Israel troops as he was walking through the city centre. But he was luckier than Mohammed Sharif, aged 25, the son of a senior Hebron cleric, who was shot dead by the Israeli army at about the same time.

Luckier, too, than the five Palestinians the Israeli army shot dead in Gaza on Thursday, less than 24 hours after the much-vaunted talks between Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat. Most of them died in a firefight which Israel's army disgracefully started by sending its tanks on a midnight wrecking mission into Rafah refugee camp.

There was a time – before this nightmare began a year ago, triggered in part by Ariel Sharon's grossly irresponsible visit to the Haram al-Sharif/ Temple Mount – when it was easy to come to talk to people in Hebron.

I used to drive down from Jerusalem with my wife and five-year-old daughter to eat Arab food, or buy pieces of Hebron glass, or jumbo-sized soft drinks bottles, full of cloudy, rich-smelling olive oil. But a year has turned it into one of West Bank's most dangerous roads. Hebron was always radical and religiously conservative, and always tense because of an unworkable agreement which allowed 450 militant Jews to remain in enclaves in a city of 120,000 Arabs. Now the city is a truly lethal place.

Along the road itself – Route 60 – Israeli soldiers peer through the slits of grey cylindrical pillar boxes, posted at intervals along its length. Motorists with Israeli plates, fearful of ambushes, race through, no longer pausing to admire the olive groves and vineyards, groaning now with grapes that the Palestinians cannot often get out to pick because many of them are still blockaded inside their villages. In places, giant concrete barriers have been erected to screen off the road.

The route from Jersualem to Hebron is 28 miles long and yet it now has five Israeli army road blocks. Even this is not enough for the Jewish settlers, who live behind electric gates and razor wire in their ugly concrete new settlements – the bricks and mortar with which Israel enforces its creeping illegal occupation of Arab land.

Vigilante settler patrols have sprung up, which harass and intimidate Palestinians in neighbouring areas.

The settlers are right, though, to be fearful. Driving southwards yesterday, I could barely pass a settlement without recalling a death.

On a hilltop to the west was Karmei Tzur, home of Dr Shmuel Gillis, 42, a British-born physician with five children, who was killed in a drive-by shooting. Not far away was Efrat, where I remember standing on a brilliantly sunny March day among a crowd of mourners for Baruch Cohen, 59, who was shot by gunmen and then crashed his car into an oncoming lorry.

And just outside Jerusalem, was the spot to which an Israel intelligence officer, Yehuda Edri, 45, was lured by a Palestinian informant who killed him. Every half-mile seemed to bring the site of an atrocity, or a living monument to bigotry and apartheid.

We drove into Hebron at about noon, keen to see whether the ceasefire formalised by this week's talks between the Palestinian leader, Mr Arafat, and Mr Peres, Israel's Foreign Minister, would survive the intifada's first anniversary.

Friday prayers had begun. But the language spouting from the mosques was not of peace. "Freedom has a gate of blood," said the voice coming the loudspeakers outside the Ansar mosque. "The struggle needs patience and perseverance ... You will not be defeated. Those who want to do evil to Islam should be destroyed." The voice, onlookers told us, was that of the imam, Sheikh Mustafa Shawer, a Hamas supporter.

President George Bush's insistence that his war on terror is not a war on Islam does not seem to have registered here.

"God is punishing New York. The Americans will met the same fate as the pharoahs who behaved arrogantly – just like the Americans – so God drowned them in the sea."

Who knows who started the fighting yesterday. We came to see anniversary day demonstrations, but they never materialised. For 20 minutes, the city centre where the Israeli-controlled sector meets the city's Palestinians, echoed with the crash and bang of rubber bullets and sound grenades. And then live bullets started flying.We were in Alieh Hospital, talking to Nidal, when a bullet smashed into the wall close by. Nidal did not respond when we asked him – somewhat lamely – what this meant for the ceasefire, but Mohammed Jobeh, a 35-year-old mechanic being treated for shrapnel wounds, chipped in on his behalf.

His words were on many Palestinian lips yesterday. "This is not the end but the beginning. The beginning of the intifada's second year."

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