Nearby, a couple of television crews were interviewing local officials about the big demonstration that was just winding up. These were the stragglers, milling about a few hundred yards from the burnt-out car wreck, charred tyres, and Israeli army jeeps which mark the front line in northern Ramallah.
Down the hill, a few youths were throwing rocks at the soldiers, who lobbed the occasional stun grenade at them. But the gas canisters came out of the blue.
The mood changed instantly. Within a couple of minutes, Palestinian gunmen, some moving on foot though nearby fields, had opened fire on the Israelis with Kalashnikovs. For the next half-hour, the low hills of the West Bank reverberated with the din of a fire fight.
For weeks, Palestinians have been alleging that the Israelis are using a dangerous new odourless gas which causes victims to suffer convulsions and burning rashes. Israel's armed forces vehemently deny this. A spokesman told The Independent that they only ever use tear gas.
Whatever the substance is the truth can only be established by independent scientific tests it is clearly an effective way to disperse Palestinian crowds. Even the most hard-bitten rock-throwers seemed to be terrified of it. And yet, despite its obvious effectiveness, Israeli soldiers had earlier fired live bullets at demonstrators.
Earlier in the afternoon, Israeli troops had also fired live bullets at the demonstrators, about 2,000 of whom arrived at the front line, in el-Bireh, after Friday prayers. It was a larger turn-out than is usual these days, a sign that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's limited helicopter assaults on Ramallah and the Gaza Strip on Wednesday had revived the public's taste for the intifada.
Within a few moments of the troops opening fire, eight people had been injured and one killed. Mohammed Wawi, 21, who came from a nearby Palestinian refugee camp, was shot in the head, bringing the estimate of those killed in this small dirty war to 443 361 Palestinians, 13 Israeli Arabs and 69 Israeli Jews.
Although Palestinian militants have attacked Israeli men, women and children using an array of loathsome methods including drive-by shootings and suicide bombs the bulk of the killing has been done by the Israeli army, firing rifle rounds and rubber-coated steel ball-bearings at rioters, including children, who are throwing stones and petrol bombs.
The total ticks up by a death or two each day. By nightfall yesterday, five Palestinians had been killed and more than 100 injured in rallies and protests in the occupied territories and in Israel, where the 1.2 million-strong Israeli Arab community was marking Land Day, the annual protest against Israeli land theft. Tension had been building all week, ratcheted up among Israelis by Palestinian bombing attacks, and the shooting dead of the 10-month-old child of a Jewish settler in Hebron.
To the usual Palestinian anger over the army's conduct, and months of living imprisoned in their towns and villages by an Israeli blockade, there was added annoyance of seeing the new US administration appear to take Israel's side. In remarks on Thursday, President George Bush called for both sides to exercise restraint, but he laid far more emphasis on Yasser Arafat. His message to the Palestinian leader was, he said, that he should stop attacks on Israelis. "And I hope Chairman Arafat hears it loud and clear."
Nothing about yesterday's events will have given the new US president much reason for optimism. In the Gaza Strip, about 30 gunmen from Mr Arafat's Fatah group led a large march, firing in the air and chanting "Sharon, wait, Fatah is going to open your grave in Gaza." Mohammed Musallam, carrying a Kalashnikov, said attacks against Israel would continue. "If Sharon thinks for a second to reoccupy the Palestinian areas, he should prepare black bags for the remains of his soldiers," he said.
Mr Musallam was responding to warnings by Israel's defence minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, that Israeli soldiers would enter Palestinian-controlled areas, if necessary, to chase Palestinian guerrillas "Everything ... is kosher," the minister said; Israel would send forces to "any place we feel ... is endangering us." Such words will please the Israeli public, who are angry and frightened. But, if carried out, they will only lead to an even nastier war.Reuse content