A group of elderly men was seen suddenly running for their lives along the road through the market that links Manara Square with Jerusalem Street. They were running from the square in an easterly direction. It happened yesterday afternoon at a time when Ramallah was officially under total curfew. It very soon became clear what the curfew-breakers were fleeing from. In seconds, two armored personnel carriers came charging down at about 30 kilometers per hour. Their guns were moving but the hatches remained shut and no soldier could be seen peeking out. Behind the APCs was a troupe of eight- to sixteen-year-olds, chasing them and hurling stones at them with all their might.
T., another curfew-breaker in his sixties, watched them in awe and listened to the sound of the stones hitting the metal. He joined the children in their chase of the APCs to Manara Square until the vehicles put on speed and disappeared.
About five minutes later, two jeeps appeared on the scene. They had come from the direction of the Muqata. The children lined up opposite them, this time with rocks which they started throwing at the front windows of the jeeps. The two jeeps pulled up just out of range of the rocks. Some of the older people on the square ran for cover. All at once, the four doors of the jeeps burst open. They were like spread wings, T. said as he stood tensely awaiting developments. The children continued hurling the rocks. A few seconds passed, no soldier emerged, and the four doors closed simultaneously. The two jeeps pulled back and stopped at some distance from the stonethrowers.
The bagel-seller, who likewise had broken the curfew, had less dramatic events to report. He had been announcing his wares around the neighborhood since the morning. Jeeps and APCs sped by him and did nothing. The old man with a cart, carrying a pot of peas which his wife had cooked at dawn, stood at his usual corner on the square, curfew or no curfew, and tried to earn a few shekels from the other curfew-breakers.
From early in the morning it seemed as if the curfew had been lifted: private vehicles and taxis plied the roads to and from the square, elderly couples headed up the road, carrying plastic bags, to the half-open market or the neighborhood grocery store. Children ran about freely. A. tried to drive to her place of work at the research institute for public health. Soldiers in an APC stopped her. She parked her car and walked back, and they let her pass.
Through the half-open iron door of a small store, one could spot bunches of bananas - some too green, some partially ripe and others overripe. The bananas are from Jericho. Every half hour or so, the greengrocer welcomed another curfew-breaker who had come to purchase two kilos for three shekels.
People have begun breaking the curfew but there is not a general exodus from the houses.
G., who walked to his workplace, said he had not even bothered to count the number of jeeps and APCs and that the soldiers had not bothered anyone. On the contrary. He said that when jeeps went by with megaphones reminding people of the curfew, the children ran into the streets and prepared stones to throw.
A member of the Popular party (formerly the Communist party), G. spent Saturday night demonstrating. He believes in "non-violent popular opposition" and asked himself why there was no attempt that night to confront the army and the curfew. It is clear that mass demonstrations - as opposed to terrorist attacks - can have tremendous positive resonance in the world, he says.
"It is hard for me to understand why this is not happening again, or whether it will happen again," he says. "Perhaps what happened prevented people from going out again," he adds. "I had no intention of throwing stones, only of marching to the Muqata. But when the soldiers stopped us and some of the youths started throwing stones, we understood how dangerous it was. Maybe the soldiers waited until they started shooting but when they did shoot, every bullet hurt or killed someone. Clearly none of those who went to demonstrate wants to commit suicide; they don't want to die throwing stones.
"People would like to start breaking the curfew every day as a political message," he says, "not only to buy bread or to visit their grandmother. But they also hesitate. They are afraid that any time they go out to the streets it will be interpreted as a most limited message, as support for Arafat rather than opposition to the occupation. They are afraid that eventually there will be a deal to surrender at the Muqata, like the previous time, and the result of their bravery will be insulting."
He continues: "We are getting mixed messages from the Fatah. Some of them would like to get people onto the streets and gain points in the internal political arena; others would like to continue with the usual political message - stop the occupation. We still do not have popular leaders who are capable of pushing forward the momentum started on Saturday night."
M., a senior Fatah activist, was lightly wounded Saturday night by a rubber-coated steel bullet. He and some other activists had left their neighborhood in the northern part of the city, heading for the main road leading to the Muqata. They had coordinated their departure but had no idea how many people would join them. Like many others, they were surprised to see more and more people, including women and children, joining in. But the road to the Muqata was blocked. They did not throw stones, they merely stood opposite the soldiers. After a short while, "they started firing rubber-coated bullets at us which are lethal from a short distance."
M. is aware of the importance of the popular action. He says that now the voice of those opposed to suicide bombings can be heard more clearly and be received more successfully by the Palestinian public. But in order to continue the popular opposition permanently, and in order to persuade people to face the danger of the army's reprisal, "we need to believe that there are people on the Israeli side who are listening to us. The message is for them. It's not easy to go back to talking about a message of peace and two nations, however, when there's a tank opposite the door to our house and when we hear no voices other than those of the Israeli prime minister and chief of staff."
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