Ramallah Diary / Defying the Curfew to Demonstrate Over the Attack on Muqata

'Is it true what Al Jazeera is reporting - that dozens of young people are demonstrating in support of the besieged Yasser Arafat? Could the tear gas suddenly filling the room and burning the eyes with suffocating tears, and the gunshots drawing closer, all be aimed at dispersing such demonstrations?'

Suddenly, at about 11 P.M. on Saturday night, people started calling one another to ask with disbelief if it was true there was demonstrating in the streets. "Is it true what Al Jazeera is reporting - that dozens of young people are demonstrating in support of the besieged Yasser Arafat? Could the tear gas suddenly filling the room and burning the eyes with suffocating tears, and the gunshots drawing closer, all be aimed at dispersing such demonstrations?"

Did it make any sense to go out to demonstrate at night, in the frightening darkness, breaking the strict curfew, into streets filled with Israeli armored vehicles and jeeps, after three months of curfew, in which nobody seemed to remember Arafat or be interested in his fate? This is after months in which it was claimed that the Palestinian public in general and the Fatah in particular were disgusted with their leader and his faltering government.

In these months the curfew policy appeared to be achieving its goal. People, especially in Ramallah, broke it individually for personal needs, but not in an organized fashion and not in confrontation with the army. (An exception was children, mainly from the refugee camps, who threw stones at tanks and armored vehicles. One of them, Abed A-Salam Samarn of the Al Amari refugee camp outside Ramallah, was killed this way last Thursday morning. Some say he didn't even get to throw a stone.)

On some days only two jeeps drove around Ramallah, yet the municipal institutions were paralyzed, obedient to the curfew orders given by telephone. The IDF, Civil Administration, or someone from the Security Coordination Office would call a few key people in town - bakeries, pharmacies, greengrocers, supermarkets, butcher shops, announcing that tomorrow curfew would be imposed until further notice. Residents would call their local baker, or neighbor who owned a pharmacy, to ask what decree fate held for the next day. Then they would pass the message on to the rest of their relatives and friends.

"One phone call was enough to have us all obey the curfew. What is happening to us," people said shamefacedly. That is why, on Saturday night, people had trouble believing the increasing reports of nocturnal demonstrations.

The questions were soon replaced by solid information: a few dozen people went marching from the southern Ramallah quarter, Um Al Sharayat, others set forth from downtown Ramallah, the poor quarter, and from the Al Amari refugee camp. Someone says that students at the Bir Zeit University started gathering for a demonstration. Will they reach Ramallah, will they pass the Surda road-block north of the city? Clearly the IDF was shocked, but it was not alone: everyone was shocked by this collective audaciousness. Even the people themselves, who took to the streets despite the curfew and armored vehicles, not knowing whether they would return alive or in one piece.

Suddenly, a telephone call from Nablus reported that a demonstration was being organized in the Balata and Askar refugee camps, and large crowds were gathering in the center of Nablus and Tul Karm - towns under severe curfew. Thousands were thronging out in Rafah and Khan Yunis, approaching the army outposts on the Egypt-Gaza border and on the seam line with the Gush Katif settlements.

In Jericho, where there are no IDF troops, crowds came out to demonstrate support for the besieged leader. Journalists reported afterward that the people gathered round the prison where six Palestinians, including Fuad Shubaki of the arms boat and those convicted of Rehavam Ze'evi's death, are incarcerated under the supervision of American and British wardens. The international supervisors felt threatened.

Another phone call told of another wave of demonstrators approaching Ramallah's Manarah Square. Yet another said the Bir Zeit demonstrators had reached the main road leading to the Muqata. The caller, the teacher of some of the demonstrators, was choking on tears of joy and fear for their safety. The ambulances in Ramallah are howling. A caller from Gaza said loudspeakers were calling on people to come out into the streets. On Irsal street, leading to the Muqata, young women are running back and forth, trying to avoid the tear gas and shouting up at the lit windows: "Please come out to demonstrate," "there's a demonstration," and "there are people in the street." The soldiers dispersed the demonstrators with tear gas and then started shooting rubber-coated metal bullets at them. Some soldiers cursed the protesters, threatening: "If you don't get out of here, you'll become shahids."

Al Jazeera stopped its regular broadcasts and covered the events for about three hours. The footage repeated itself but encouraged people in other places and buildings to go out to the streets. The match which ignited the flame, it seemed, was the urgent news flash broadcast by the channel at about 10 P.M.: "The army is ordering the beleaguered men in the the Muqata to leave before it blows up the building." Local Fatah activists started calling one another on the telephone. "It's a disgrace. Here we are sitting at home doing nothing, only watching television how one more building in the Muqata is being destroyed, how another blast endangers the life of Arafat and the rest of those holed up there, how the world just lets it happen."

The activists in every quarter acted independently, inviting friends, knocking on neighbors' doors and suggesting they join them in protest.

Senior Fatah activists boasted that it was all organized and planned, rather than spontaneous. Nonsense, retorted other activists, just as senior. Nobody could force anyone to go out and risk his or her life. It was the simply the act of a few activists who lost patience with their helplessness at the right moment. It was the moment the rage and humiliation of an entire public reached the point in which many were ready to take the risk. At that moment the courage of a few dozen spread and brought out to the street more and more people. Granted, most of the demonstrators were Fatah activists, but they were not the only ones. Some said the aim was to demonstrate support in Arafat, others said it was to break the world's indifference.

Midnight - whistles in the wadi

A little after midnight the deafening noise of an air hammer demolishing buildings was heard. Suddenly a whistle was heard in the wadi at the foot of the Muqata. The whistle turned into many whistles, growing louder and louder, and a voice in the neighborhood mosque joined them, calling on people to come to demonstrate. In the side streets around Manarah Square, among the closed shutters of gold shops, butcheries and bakeries, the demonstrators continued to move. Some were fleeing from tear gas, others appeared from the opposite direction. Young people built barricades from everything they could lay hands on: an old door, large stones, pieces of iron. They lit a fire in the middle of the street. One shot, and the barricade collapsed. Another, and an ambulance howled. Youngsters threw stones at the military jeeps speeding toward them. Youngsters fled. T. noticed a young man rolling a metal barrel up the street. Suddenly more massive shooting began, from a military vehicle in Manarah, T. said. Apparently youngsters and children threw stones from every alley, despite the gunshots. The young people ran back and forth, and T. saw someone being shot and fall. Somebody said: "That's the young man who rolled the barrel up the hill." An ambulance appeared in seconds. Then T. saw another boy who had been shot in the leg. Later there were reports of two people killed in Ramallah (Isam Hamza, 32, a Radio Palestine producer and Isam Ismail, 28). Three were reported wounded. The hospitals declared a state of emergency.

In Tul Karm people began to throng into the streets after 10 P.M. from every neighborhood and from the refugee camp. But unlike Ramallah, in which not a single firearm was seen among hundreds of demonstrators, in Tul Karm armed young men appeared in the crowd. People were angry with them, but could not prevent them from marching in protest with the soldiers a spit away. M. gets excited and annoyed alternatively recalling the night's events. "I swear the armed men shot more than the soldiers. From the moment loudspeakers called on people to demonstrate, the armed men started shooting. The army did very little shooting."

Another demonstrator claims the armed men did not shoot a lot. A young man was killed from gunshot in Tul Karm - Ahmed Radwan, 19. The demonstrations went on for about three hours, until 1 A.M. Only after people returned home did the army start firing "wildly," says M. "First they used stun grenades, then live bullets, in the air. For hours. We couldn't sleep. M., who had never been a Fatah member, knows that local Fatah activists had made telephone calls before the demonstrations. But he also says: "We went out, masses of us, not because anyone told us to, but spontaneously because this international humiliation became just too hard to bear."

In Nablus, too, armed activists mingled with demonstrators filling the streets after the urgent news flash broadcast on Al Jazeera. Here, too, people were angry at the armed men but could do nothing to keep them away. Riad Hashash, 19, who stood at the entrance to the Balata camp, was killed when soldiers shot at him. Altogether five were killed in the demonstrations.

At 2 A.M. in Ramallah, several people were still roaming the dark streets, soaked with tear gas and filled with smoke, too worked up to go to sleep.

The statements of people interviewed on Arab television programs echoed the thinking of those sitting at home. They were all wondering: Would those demonstrations, mainly spontaneous, stop the Israeli attack on the Muqata? Can they effect some change in the world's position, especially in the Arab states? Would it be possible to repeat such action in the next few days, to ensure it yields political fruit? Everyone hopes that the demonstration of thousands in West Bank towns, who dared to defy the army, break the curfew and hold protest meetings, marks the turning point.