Another day in Ramallah: funerals, stones, Pepsi

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The Independent Online

It was "clash day" in Ramallah again yesterday. Clash. How amorphous, dull, indifferent, how very politely neutral the word sounds. Both Israelis and Palestinians use it when they speak in English. And the "clash point" is an equally neutral stretch of roadway below the City Inn Hotel. Its bedrooms are now occupied by Israeli soldiers with sniper-rifles. Across the muddy construction site to the north is an unfinished apartment block in which Palestinians also occupy bedrooms, with their own rifles. And up the road, towards the setting afternoon sun, is the day's "clash".

It was "clash day" in Ramallah again yesterday. Clash. How amorphous, dull, indifferent, how very politely neutral the word sounds. Both Israelis and Palestinians use it when they speak in English. And the "clash point" is an equally neutral stretch of roadway below the City Inn Hotel. Its bedrooms are now occupied by Israeli soldiers with sniper-rifles. Across the muddy construction site to the north is an unfinished apartment block in which Palestinians also occupy bedrooms, with their own rifles. And up the road, towards the setting afternoon sun, is the day's "clash".

It is called Ayosha junction and it is also the place - if you are a Muslim and if you are religious and if you believe in "martyrdom" - where a live round may just send your soul directly to paradise. For the Israeli soldiers fire so many steel-coated rubber bullets - as well as real ones - that they have a "fairground" chance of hitting someone holding a stone. As for the live rounds shot across the valley at the Palestinian gunmen, they appear to have little effect. The casualties are usually the stone throwers.

It has a choreography all its own. A few burning tyres in the morning to enrage the Israeli soldiers in the clapped-out jeeps. Then two or three or four funerals for the previous day's Palestinian stone throwers - capital punishment now being an unquestioned routine penalty for chucking stones at Israelis - and then "clash" at Ayosha junction. The tyres were already burning yesterday when they freighted Hossam Salem to the cemetery near his home, a cortege of black-dressed women, serious, bespectacled men and cars in which a convoy of trucks had become entangled.

There was the old wooden coffin and a squad of men shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), then a bright orange lorry bearing the words "Bambini Fruit Juice", then a group of women carrying green flags which announce that there is no God but God and his Prophet is Mohammed. And, of course, everyone was remembering the unmarried 24-year-old who worked in his father's grocery store and who - at Ayosha junction, of course - received a bullet full in the face scarcely 18 hours before.

"He was religious, he had a big beard when he died and he was with Hamas," a family friend told us. "He was a supporter of Hamas for a long time, then he became more 'active' three months ago. All his family are with Hamas. When the Jerusalem intifada began three weeks ago, his brothers all said he would by a martyr. He also said he would be a martyr. Yesterday, he just said goodbye to his mother and went to Ayosha where there was a clash."

Active? Did Hossam Salem carry a gun? No one knew. But he was throwing stones and his grisly post-death portrait - a massive coloured photograph taken in the morgue - showed that the front of Hossam Salem's face, much covered with a fluffy beard, had been powerfully stove in below the nose. Did he go to paradise, I asked a middle aged man with a grey moustache and thin-framed spectacles? "If you are a real believer, then you go to paradise. I believe he went there, inshallah (if God wills)."

The mourners drifted away from the little mosque where a clutch of 19th century buildings of dressed stone spoke of an earlier, gentle, Ottoman Ramallah. And within an hour, more candidates had arrived to take Hossam Salem's place at the "clash point". There were perhaps 400 young men throwing and catapulting stones down the road - forget the cliche about "rock-throwing", these are garden-sized stones, about five inches wide - and the Israeli soldiers were hiding behind the armoured jeeps and firing tear gas back at the Palestinians in a slow, almost lazy way.

One of the Israelis sat in the back of his jeep ten feet from me, pulling on a cold can of Pepsi Cola. Then he heaved himself from the vehicle, fixed a grenade to his rifle and fired it into the air above the jeep. It soared like a constellation plummeting 400 feet down, in a trail of white smoke to burst amid the crowd. Then his colleague, with an equally casual effort, used the door of the jeep to aim his rifle and fired off a rubber bullet that bounced and skipped down the road.

Every few seconds the cartridge case of a rubber bullet would ping at my feet. Then a Molotov cocktail would blaze harmlessly against a rusting telegraph pole, and a rain of stones would patter on the road. At mid afternoon, an ambulance drove at speed into the centre of the highway to retrieve a stone thrower who had been hit; and a soldier fired another rubber round in its direction.

And so it went on, and so it goes on, more "clashes" for President Clinton to bewail before the microphones in Washington. And I was struck, yesterday, by the sheer vacuity - the absolute other-planet irrelevance - of what Clinton said. He wanted the young people of one side to re-establish contact with the young people of the other - as if these "clashes" were taking place in a vacuum, despite the wishes of thousands of young Palestinians and Israelis. The problem is that the soldier who was drinking Pepsi Cola and the solider firing the tear gas and the young man with the Molotov cocktail and Hossam Salem are the young people.

Mr Salem didn't want to join Mr Clinton's happy-clappy reunion of youth. He wanted to go to Paradise. And the Israelis were quite prepared to send him there.

But let's keep calling them "clashes". It sounds harmless enough, child's play, just a little routine violence from which we can all withdraw and jump aboard the Oslo train once it's been put "back on track". Or from which you can speed your way - if you believe in it - straight to heaven.

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