The 11th straight day of violence between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youths opened Sunday with the funeral of 20-year-old Abdullah Salah, a procession that wound angrily through the narrow streets of this ancient city past stone churches and mosques on a sunny Easter morning.
Salah’s father grew hysterical and his mother keened and fainted as the body of their eldest son, who was shot in the chest Saturday night by Israeli soldiers during clashes near Ramallah, was taken from their house and hoisted through the streets. Salah’s body was draped in the red, black and green Palestinian flag as residents on the sidewalks watched his instantaneous transformation from neighborhood boy to martyr and symbol.
“I told him not to get involved, not to participate - and he promised me,” Salah’s father wailed as a crowd of young activists took the body for burial.
But the crowd wasn’t listening to Salah’s father because of the activists’ deafening chants. “We will avenge you,” they vowed, promising that Salah’s death will lead only to firmer resistance and more battles.
Salah’s death came at a crucial moment - on the 10th day of clashes after Israel’s decision to begin constructing a housing project for Jews on the edges of Arab east Jerusalem. Sunday, Israeli security was on full alert partly because of Salah’s death - the first fatality in these clashes - and partly because it was Land Day, a Palestinian holiday that commemorates riots set off by the expropriation of Arab-owned land in northern Israel in 1976.
The Israeli army brought in thousands of extra troops and put tanks and helicopters at West Bank checkpoints to help maintain order.
But although Sunday’s violence was widespread, it remained well under control. Unlike clashes in September, when riots and gunbattles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police left more than 70 people dead in less than a week, the Israelis were not shooting to kill this time and the Palestinians were not shooting at all.
In clashes of rhetoric Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat blamed each other for endangering the battered peace process.
Meanwhile, Muslim foreign ministers meeting in Cairo, Egypt, approved a resolution that recommends freezing relations with Israel because of its settlement policies. But the resolution does not oblige any Arab country to suspend ties with Israel.
The fighting in Bethlehem began after Salah’s burial when thousands of mourners broke up and young men headed for the Israeli army checkpoint in front of Rachel’s tomb, where the biblical matriarch is believed to have been buried.
Hamas supporters, youths from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and members of Arafat’s own Fatah movement reached into back pockets for their slingshots. Some of the older boys showed great power and accuracy, while others saw their stones drop harmlessly only a few feet away.
Many of the Palestinians wore gas masks left over from the Persian Gulf War to continue fighting through clouds of Israeli tear gas, while others wore gloves to lob the tear gas canisters back across the checkpoint without burning their hands.
Periodically, someone would get hit in the arm or leg by a rubber bullet, and waiting ambulances would carry away the wounded.