Silence is the latest weapon for Israelis

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The Independent Online

The Palestinian youth, huddled with a dozen others behind a burnt-out car at Ayosh junction in Ramallah, stepped out of cover with his slingshot. Instantly, silently, he was felled.

The Palestinian youth, huddled with a dozen others behind a burnt-out car at Ayosh junction in Ramallah, stepped out of cover with his slingshot. Instantly, silently, he was felled.

When the confrontation with Israeli troops began, at about 1.30pm yesterday, it had seemed to follow the ritual of such encounters since the latest round of violence began on 28 September. We had heard the bangs of rubber bullets and the crashes of stun grenades fired by the Israelis at the Palestinians stoning them from the other side of the junction, followed by the sirens of ambulances taking the victims to hospital. Now, however, something new was happening.

A boy would fall to the ground, clutching his leg or side, and the ambulance drivers would not notice until they were frantically summoned forward by other stone-throwers. There was no sound at all - a sniper, apparently using a silencer and firing sub-sonic rounds, was at work. By mid-afternoon 11 youths had been taken to Ramallah hospital, four with rubber bullet injuries and seven with wounds not seen before. They had been hit by .22mm bullets, a calibre normally used to shoot rabbits.

This, it appears, was the result of a switch in tactics by the Israeli army, brought about by the need to avoid a heavy death toll on the day peace talks got under way in Egypt. Until yesterday most of the Palestinians killed in the past 18 days had been hit by rounds of much greater calibre.

But in the West Bank and Gaza, many Palestinians were determined to mark the day with mass demonstrations. There were clashes in Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus and Rafah, where a Palestinian policeman was killed and two Israeli soldiers wounded by gunfire. A 14-year-old boy was reported dead in Bethlehem after being hit in the head by a rubber bullet. In Hebron, a 13-year-old boy was reported killed. Another 63 Palestinians were wounded during the day.

At the hospital, a trail of blood led to the emergency room, where the slingshot wielder was conscious but grimacing with pain from a wound in his pelvis. An 18-year-old called Taha Afaneh, he said he had heard nothing before the bullet struck. His right arm was still bandaged from a rubber bullet impact, and he pulled up his trouser leg to show thescabs from another rubber bullet wound sustained in earlier days of the present conflict.

Ramallah - unlike Gaza, from where Taha came seeking work - has gained economically from the peace process. Palestinians here have something to lose from a new war with Israel, and only a handful of youths were ready to court martyrdom at Ayosh junction, despite an emotional funeral earlier at which there was strong opposition to the participation of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, in peace talks.

Masked gunmen fired volleys over the grave of Raid Hamoude, a father of three, who died on Sunday of wounds sustained two days earlier. "I don't think we should be talking in Egypt," said a neighbour of Mr Hamoude. "I don't want peace with Jewish people - I want freedom and our country back."

Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank chief of Fatah, Mr Arafat's party, and leader of its armed wing, the Tanzim, told the 2,000 crowd: "The intifada will never end until we achieve sovereignty and independence. This is our vow: it will never end."

Still, leaders had tried to dissuade those at the funeral from heading for Ayosh junction, known as the "point of confrontation". Only the hard core assembled, both sides heavily outnumbered by journalists and television crews.

The ambulances lined up; the youths tried to move forward behind the shells of cars, ineffectually slinging rocks at troops in body armour and at vehicles. A plump woman in a headscarf kept them supplied, filling a box with stones, then ambling up to the front line to empty it at their feet. From time to time Israeli soldiers leapt from their vehicles to fire rubber bullets or tear gas, and a vehicle rushed forward in a flurry of stun grenades to bulldoze car wrecks aside, temporarily scattering the stone-throwers. As we left for the hospital, a man walked down the hill towards the junction, clutching five petrol bombs.

The Israeli forces disdain the use of riot equipment, such as water cannon, which might clear Ayosh junction without the use of bullets. Among those wounded yesterday was Mr Barghouti's nephew, Tamir Barghouti, 21, a student, hit in the abdomen by a .22mm round. He was said to be in a serious condition.

In the hospital Marwan Barghouti, who is thought to be positioning himself to succeed Mr Arafat, criticised his decision to attend the peace talks. "I support Mr Arafat, but I think he shouldn't have gone," he said. "The talks will fail, and we will continue the fight."