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May 17, 2001
Must read article by Phil Reeves of The Independent



"Arafat defiant as wave of bloodshed stains disaster day"
By Phil Reeves in Ramallah
The Independent
16 May 2001

The Israeli bullet that killed Abdel Jewad Shehadeh, a 20-year-old Palestinian, at Ayosh junction near the West Bank town of Ramallah hits its mark - his skull - at 1.51pm yesterday.

The timing is important. Sixteen minutes later, journalists at the scene received on their electronic bleepers a message from the Israel Defence Forces' press office. "There was shooting at IDF forces at Ayosh junction," said the text, "IDF forces did not return fire."

In some ways, this otherwise mendacious message is true. The Israeli army did not "return fire" at Ayosh junction, one of the worst battlefields of the last eight months. It initiated it.

A few score stone-throwers gathered there, in front of a few thousand peaceful marchers and onlookers, had been hurling their rocks and sling-shots at Israeli troops for 10 minutes, before the loud crack of live Israeli bullets began. They hit Mr Jewad Shehadeh, a policeman. They hit and killed another man, aged 22. And they critically injured an 18-year-old, who was shot in the chest. The Israelis also shot Bertrand Aguirre, a correspondent for France's television channel TF1. He was hit in the chest by a bullet from an M-16 in another deliberate targeting of a journalist. A photographer's video shows an Israeli border policeman, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, jump out of a dark green jeep, aim his M-16 rifle in the direction of the reporters and fire a single shot.

Fortunately, Mr Aguirre had been wearing a flak jacket; he was only slightly hurt. An hour after firing the first live round, the scene was all too familiar: a fully fledged gunfight was underway, with Palestinians firing at Israeli positions with M-16s and Kalashnikovs and Israelis replying with sniper fire and the occasional tank shell.

Nakba day - the day when Palestinians mark the anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 with rallies and protests - was always destined to be violent. Only a day earlier, the Israeli army had increased the chances of even more bloodshed by shooting dead - without being fired on themselves and for no apparent reason - five Palestinian security officers in a night-time attack on their makeshift police checkpoint near Ramallah.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets of their towns across the occupied territories, breaking off their protests at noon to stand in silence as a three-minute siren sounded. There were also rallies inside Israel, by Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.

By sunset, four Palestinians had been killed in the West Bank and Gaza, and at least 129 were wounded, five critically. In Gaza, two were killed. One of them was a bodyguard of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of the militant Palestinian Islamic-nationalist group, Hamas. The Israeli army said it shot him because he was part of a group that had been firing mortars into Israel; Hamas, which has carried out four suicide bombings against Israelis during the intifada, vowed to avenge his death.

And an Israeli woman Idit Mizrachi, 22, was shot and killed when the car she was travelling in was ambushed by Palestinian guerrillas near Ramallah. In a recorded television address to Palestinians, Yasser Arafat - who spent Nakba day away from his patches of territory by going to Egypt - spelt out his view of the path to peace. "It is the road of the full and comprehensive withdrawal of the occupation army and settlers from all of the Palestinian and Arab territories to the June 4, 1967 lines," he said.

"Blind military might will not bring about peace, it will not bring our people to its knees. We will continue in this way until the day we raise the Palestinian flag over Jerusalem, over Jerusalem's mosques and Jerusalem's churches."

Ra'anan Gissin, an aide to Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, described Mr Arafat's speech as "words of war". But the day, for all its bombast and bullets, was also about the politics of peace-making. Both sides are staking out their positions over the report by the US-led Mitchell Committee, which calls for an immediate end to violence and puts forwards the framework for rejoining negotiations.

Israel is keen to avoid being accused of rejecting its findings and, in doing so, rebuffing outright an opportunity to end the hostilities. This is why its Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, has said that Israel "accepts the report in principle", despite the fact that his government has made it clear that it rejects one basic component - a call for a total freeze on building settlements in the occupied territories. The issue puts Israel in a difficult position. The Palestinians have intensified the pressure on their opponents by accepting the report.

Both sides submitted their responses to the Mitchell report yesterday. The Palestinian response said that they "fully support" all of the committee's recommendations as a "comprehensive package", although the report "does not fully address all their concerns". The Israeli response, as well as rejecting a settlements freeze, denied that its army uses excessive force - a position that after yesterday's events became still more ludicrous.

The Palestinian bus driver who rammed his bus into a crowd of Israelis in February, killing eight and injuring 21, was convicted of murder yesterday. The Tel Aviv District Court found Khalil Abu Olbeh, 35, guilty of eight counts of premeditated murder and 21 counts of causing grievous bodily harm. Abu Olbeh told police that he ran into the soldiers because he was angry over the killing of Palestinians by the Israeli army in the intifada. "I saw the soldiers and I remembered what they are doing to us with tanks and helicopters and planes and missiles in Gaza," he said in testimony to the court.

Phil Reeves in Ramallah
The Independent