O Peaceful town of Bethlehem, HRH 10-2-2000


How quickly things can change in the flashpoint of the Middle East. A week ago, the Palestinian town of Bidya was a thriving commercial center, a place that attracted thousands of Israeli weekend shoppers looking for a good bargain on the other side of the "Green Line" -- a fine example of how Arab and Jew could co-exist.

Today, it's a ghost town. Stores enticing customers with signs in Arabic, Russian and Hebrew are shut tight. A lone armoured Israeli Army jeep drives slowly down the empty streets. Two days ago, a Russian Jew who went to Bidya to get his car fixed was shot dead. Peace and co-existence here seem to be as elusive as the ring of a cash register right now.

[Palestinian town of Bethlehem, October 2000, by HRH]

On the way to the Palestinian city of Nablus, the Israeli Army is clearly
making its presence felt. Troops march single file down the side of the
road. A dozen tanks are parked in an army base adjacent to the nearby
Jewish settlements.

Nablus itself has been ground zero for a lot of the fighting between
Palestinians and Israeli soldiers over the last five days. Deadly
firefights have broken out surrounding the site that many Jews venerate as
Joseph's Tomb. It's a sore point for Palestinians: Israel maintains a
military presence here despite Palestinian sovereignty in Nablus. Jewish
settlers spend a lot of time in the small building where they believe that
the biblical Joseph was laid to rest. Ironically, "Joseph" was also the
anglicized last name of the Israeli soldier who bled to death there on
Sunday when rescue teams couldn't get to him in time because of the bullets
flying around the tomb.

Another funeral today for yet another young Palestinian who has died in the
heat of battle. Women chant in groups, a parade follows the cortege out of
the mosque. Men fire their Kalishnikovs into the air. But otherwise, no
one utters a word.

Back at Joseph's Tomb, dozens of uniformed Palestinian police congregate,
waiting for the inevitable spillover of passion after the funeral. Helpful
onlookers warn us to take cover: a lone Israeli helicopter flies above and
there are snipers in the hills above the town. The occasional gunshot
echoes from building to building. It's not safe they say.

Since the conflagration began, armed Palestinian men have rushed over to the
site after each funeral to vent their fury at the loss of yet another one of
their people's lives at the hand of the Israeli occupier. Today, their
emotions are more muted, but the fury is still there.

"This is not going to stop," Feras Al-Bakri says. "Because this is our
Intifada. There are thousands of martyrs. We are not going to stop. Ariel
Sharon started it."

His youthful passion and anger beg the question: even if Palestinian and
Israeli leaders reach a tenable cease-fire agreement, will those on the
street who started it obey? They have declared the conflict the "Al-Aqsa
Intifada" -- a homegrown Palestinian uprising dedicated to the provocative
visit of hardline Israeli leader Ariel Sharon last week to the religious
shrine Jews call the Temple Mount, and Muslims call the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Palestinian radio and television are already calling all of the faithful to
gather at Al-Aqsa on Friday afternoon to demonstrate with their solidarity
that the holy site belongs to solely to Islam. Israeli authorities say they
fear the worst.

In a Nablus cafe, men drink tea and coffee, suck on ornate water pipes and
silently watch the television that broadcasts funeral after funeral. As the
Palestinian leadership mulls over its options and the region braces itself
for the consequences, the air is tense as everyone asks: "what comes next?"