The grey smoke rose in a curtain over Yasser Arafat's headquarters, drifting high above two minarets and then smudging the skyline south of Ramallah.
"I guess he's blown himself up," an Israeli paratrooper said with contempt. "That guy is finished." We stood at the edge of the Jewish settlement just 400 yards from the first houses of the newly reoccupied Palestinian city – surrounded by Merkava tanks, Magah armoured vehicles and Jeeps and trucks and hundreds of reservists tugging blankets and mattresses and guns from the backs of lorries.
"It's only just beginning, you know that?" the paratrooper asked. "They are idiots down there. They should know their terrorism is over. We're never going back to the '67 borders. Anyway, they want Tel Aviv."
A clap of sound punched our ears, a shell exploding on the other side of the hill upon which Ramallah lies. I wandered closer to the city, through a garden of daffodils and dark purple flowers to where an Israeli boy soldier was standing.
"I want to go home," he said blankly. I said 20 seemed to be too young to be a soldier. "That's what my mother says."
He was eating matzah bread with salami, staring at the empty streets of Ramallah. "They've locked themselves in their homes," he said. "Do you blame them?"
I didn't. But it was a strange morning, sitting with the soldiers above Ramallah, a bit like those awful viewing platforms which generals would arrange for their guests in the Napoleonic wars, where food might be served while they watched the battlefield.
There was even a settler couple, cheerfully serving hot food and coffee to the reservists. The woman held out a bowl of vegetables and cheese for me. "My daughter's at Cambridge University," she said with a smile. "She's studying the history of the Crusades." A bloody business, I remarked, and her companion cheerfully agreed. Religious wars are like that.
That's when I saw the four Palestinians. Just below us, next to the garden with the daffodils and the purple flowers, three of them were kneeling on the grass in front of a group of Israeli officers. All were blindfolded, their hands tied behind them with plastic and steel handcuffs, one of them with his jacket pulled down his back so that he could not even move his shoulders. The Israelis were talking to them quietly, one of them on one knee as if before an altar rather than a prisoner.
Then I saw the fourth man, middle-aged, trussed up like a chicken, stretched across the grass with his blindfolded face lying amid a bunch of flowers.
The paratrooper shrugged: "They all say they've done nothing, that they're innocent, that we just came into their homes and took them without reason. Well, that's what they say."
I mentioned the prisoners to the two friendly settlers. They nodded, as if it was quite normal to have four men bound and blindfolded in the little garden. When I asked the 20-year-old about them, he shrugged like the paratrooper. "They are not my prisoners," he said.
I walked round the corner of a building to the little lawn upon which they were being questioned. A soldier was putting a new pair of cuffs on one of the kneeling men. Another Palestinian was repeatedly bowing his head before a door and his shoulders moved as if he was weeping.
None of it worried the soldiers. In their own unique "war on terror", these prisoners were "terrorists". Indeed, another soldier eating a plate of greens said that he thought "all the people down there" were "terrorists".
In front of us a Merkava tank passed, roaring down the hill below in a fog of blue smoke, its barrel gently swaying up and down above its hull. "Tomorrow is going to be worse," the paratrooper said. "This is only the beginning."
Had he been reading the newspapers? Or did he know something I had missed? There are all kinds of rumours in the settlement of Psagot; that the West Bank is going to be totally reoccupied, that the Israelis intend to re-establish their so-called "Civil Administration", that the Palestinian Authority will be dismantled and its leaders exiled.
The paratrooper's friend, a smiling sergeant who dwarfed both of us, thought it a good idea. "My only question is why we didn't do this weeks ago," he said. More troops arrived in more trucks with their Galil assault rifles. Radio shacks were being erected, armoured vehicles positioned above Ramallah. An officer asked what would happen if this operation failed. He answered his own question: "Sharon will be finished." Yes, you could not help feeling, something was coming.
On the road back to Jerusalem, I passed a rusting old bus opposite Maale Adumim, its windows covered in wire. Hands were gripping the wire and behind them, 20 or 30 faces stared through the mesh. The Palestinian prisoners were silent, looking out at the massive Jewish settlement, watching us, dark faces in shadow, guarded by a Jeep-load of troops.
A few minutes later, I stopped to buy bread and chocolate at a Palestinian grocery store in east Jerusalem. The shoppers – men, for the most part, with just two veiled women – were standing below the store's television set, plastic bags of food hanging from their hands. Israeli television does not flinch in telling the truth about its own casualties. "The toll so far appears to be 14 dead," the commentator announced. The Palestinians of Jerusalem understand Hebrew. A camera aboard a helicopter was scanning the roof of a Haifa restaurant, peeled back like a sardine can by a Hamas suicide bomber's explosives. A boy shook his head but an elderly man turned on him: "No," he said, pointing at the screen, "that's the way to do it."
And I thought of a girl in Cambridge who is studying the Crusades, and what a bloody business we agreed it all was. And how religious wars tend to be the bloodiest of all.Reuse content