Another child dies as Israeli bullets take on the slingshots

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The first of yesterday's bloodshed in the Middle East was reported on the news wires just before 1pm. A 14-year-old Palestinian boy was killed in a clash between Israeli troops and about 300 schoolchildren who stoned an Israeli army base near the Nisanit Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.

The first of yesterday's bloodshed in the Middle East was reported on the news wires just before 1pm. A 14-year-old Palestinian boy was killed in a clash between Israeli troops and about 300 schoolchildren who stoned an Israeli army base near the Nisanit Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.

The boy's name was not available because the death toll has been so high in recent days that journalists and human rights groups are struggling to keep up. By 5pm there were two more deaths; this time near Hebron.

There was the familiar conflict between the accounts of the director of the emergency department at Gaza's Shifa hospital, who said the boy was shot in the head with live ammunition, and an Israeli army spokesman at the scene, who said soldiers had not fired any live rounds and were using only rubber-coated metal bullets and tear gas to break up the latest protest.

All the same, the boy was dead. As Reuters laconically noted, this brought the number of people killed in more than three weeks of violence to 122; nearly all were Palestinians.

The average age of the victims is shockingly low. Most have been teenagers or in their early 20s, although the image that remains in the memory is that of a 12-year-old: Mohammed al-Durah, seen sheltering, terrified, with his father behind a concrete manhole entrance at the notorious Netzarim junction in Gaza. When the shooting stopped Mohammed was dead and his father, seriously wounded, lay across him.

Undoubtedly, the photograph of the boy's death was one factor that prompted President Bill Clinton to seek a ceasefire at Sharm el-Sheikh last week. Yet the only thing one letter-writer to an Israeli newspaper wanted to know was how the photographer had got his picture. There was no expression of sympathy; simply the implication that the tragedy was being exploited by the world's press. For Israelis the image that counts is the one of the man with bloody hands in the window of Ramallah police station, where two army reservists were butchered.

Obsessive concentration on the details at the expense of the principles was evident again yesterday in comments by another newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth. The paper attacked Yasser Arafat for inflating Palestinian casualty figures. On Saturday, it said the Palestinian Authority radio had reported that more than 100 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli gunfire since the beginning of the current unrest and that the number of injured was drawing close to 5,000.

"This did not prevent Arafat from ... [telling] the Arab summit that the number of Palestinian casualties was 193 and that over 7,000 have been injured," it complained.

Yedioth Ahronoth said the radio used figures from the Palestinian Health Ministry, which corresponded very closely with those the newspaper obtained from its own monitoring, so it was clear that "Arafat and his officials are fully aware of the real numbers". The Palestinian leader, it added, was exaggerating the death toll to create the impression that his people were being massacred, thus requiring a United Nations peace-keeping force such as those witnessed in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Yet there was no discussion of whether 100 deaths was not too many. It is taken for granted that Mr Arafat has a huge army of young Palestiniansready to die at his word, and that if they throw stones they must be shot. No commentator has asked whether it might not be wiser to stop supplying him with victims.

The main topic of debate among Israelis at the weekend was the Jewish settlers who hiked across a hillside in full view of the volatile town of Nablus, beginning a firefight that killed a rabbi and forced the Israeli army into a protracted rescue operation. There was heavy criticism of the settlers for endangering their children for political purposes, "like the Palestinians".

For an embarrassed army, which allowed the hikers to stray and even gave them a military escort, the episode shows that it is caught between extreme groups seeking to drag it into bloodshed: witness the demonstrators outside the office of the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, during yesterday's cabinet meeting. They were demanding that he stop "holding back" the military and send them in to sort out the Palestinian territories.

Since the start of the violence on 28 September, Israel has been criticised abroad for excessive use of force, by the UN Security Council and General Assembly, by Human Rights Watch and by Amnesty International, which said Israeli security forces "have repeatedly resorted to excessive use of lethal force in circumstances in which neither the lives of the security forces nor others were in imminent danger, resulting in unlawful killings".

Yet this has stirred little debate; rather the opposite, in fact. The Arab summit's condemnation of Israeli "barbarism" has reinforced the sense among Israelis that the world is against them, and that their only reliable friend is the US.

With so little appreciation of the frustration of young Palestinians, from years of peace talks during which Jewish settlements have expanded, land has been confiscated and homes demolished, it is no surprise that the Israeli public supports the hard-liners.

That public may find that Mr Arafat cannot turn off the protests, especially if an emergency government in Israel all but ditches the peace process; in which case yesterday's 14-year-old may be forgotten in a further tide of bloodshed.

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