Jack Kelley, USA Today
Oct. 23, 2000
RAMALLAH, West Bank. The cackle of laughter and singing coming across the Israeli Army radio is suddenly interrupted. "Snipers! Snipers!" an Israeli scout screams from atop a nearby building.
A second later, a barrage of bullets shatters the windows of an Israeli Army Jeep, inches from the head of Lt. Erez Winner, 31, who controls the Israeli ground forces in Ramallah. More bullets ricochet off the side of the vehicle, the street and a nearby building.
Simultaneously, 200 Palestinian youths yelling "Allah Akbar," or "God is great," charge down the street throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.
One of the explosives lands under the hood of a Jeep and appears to set it on fire. The Israeli soldier reverses the Jeep so fast that a soldier leaning against the side of the Jeep for protection is knocked to the ground.
About 60 Palestinians, who are within 25 yards, pelt him with rocks. He is hit in the forehead and starts to bleed.
Another soldier jumps from the Jeep to help him, but he is shot in the right hip by one of the Palestinian snipers. He limps into the back of the Jeep. The crowd of Palestinians cheer.
Similar clashes took place over the weekend in other West Bank and Gaza towns, but none was as intense as what happened here Saturday. And the firefight in Ramallah might have marked a turning point in the three weeks of violence that has claimed more than 120 lives. A USA TODAY reporter and photographer were on patrol with an Israeli unit when the firefight broke out. This is what they saw:
Palestinians have begun attacking Israeli soldiers in what appear to be well-planned and coordinated ambushes involving not only young protesters but also Palestinian Authority policemen, civilian ambulance drivers and others. The Palestinians are not only throwing rocks at the soldiers but, Israelis say, also have begun bringing heavier artillery, including handheld rocket launchers, to the front lines. Israeli soldiers, under orders to aim from the waist down, also appear to be firing rubber bullets at the heads and upper bodies of Palestinians.
"This intifada is no longer just Palestinian kids throwing rocks," Winner yells as he dodges for cover. "These are professionally organized attacks using kids as a cover."
And, warns Maj. Gen. Amos Malka, head of military intelligence for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), this "is only the beginning." Other Israeli intelligence officials say that satellite photos reveal that heavy artillery is being moved around the Palestinian-controlled territories in the West Bank and Gaza.
They say that leaders of Fatah, the political party of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's government, and leaders of the militant Muslim group Hamas have begun taking over the attacks in several West Bank towns.
"The intifada is increasing in intensity and firepower," Malka says. "And it's going to get worse. Israel could face a new wave of terror."
The intifada, or Palestinian uprising, began in 1987 as a protest by rock-throwing youths to Israel's occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan River, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967.
But Palestinian leaders deny that, with rare exceptions, anything but rocks is being used or that Palestinian officials are involved.
"Israelis are shooting mercilessly at Palestinians, mostly innocent children, who are armed with only rocks," says Abu Mohamed Batsh, political leader of the militant Muslim group Islamic Jihad.
Any other reports, Fatah leader Marwan Bargouti says, are "Israeli propaganda."
"Look at the figures: More than 100 dead, almost all of them Palestinians," he says. "Now tell me who is the brutal aggressor here? It's Israel. They are massacring us. You won't see us with tanks, rocket or missiles in our hands. You'll see only innocent children."
The attack in Ramallah comes as Israel is receiving widespread criticism for using what its critics say is excessive force against Palestinians in stopping the clashes.
The U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva condemned Israel during the weekend for "crimes against humanity," and leaders at the Arab Summit in Cairo on Sunday blasted the Jewish state for "mass killing and barbarian bombing." Several Arab leaders repeatedly questioned why Israeli forces were using live ammunition against boys armed only with rocks.
As the leaders spoke, clashes continued to erupt throughout the West Bank and Gaza. But none was as intense as here at the Ayosh Junction, which separates the Palestinian-controlled town of Ramallah from the Israeli-controlled town and military base of Beit El.
SHOOT AT THE KNEES
It was supposed to have been a quiet day in Ramallah. An undercover Israeli Army scout, mingling among the 200 Palestinian youths, had just reported that most were drinking Pepsi Colas, singing songs and "simply walking" around the litter-filled streets.
So, Winner says, it should come as no surprise that the 12 Israeli Army soldiers also were drinking Pepsis, eating pretzels and using their cell phones to call their wives and girlfriends. Even the Israeli snipers, scouts and videographers on the rooftops above seemed at ease: One sang a chorus of an Israeli pop song over the radio to the laughter of his fellow soldiers.
"Maybe we will be lucky today and it will be quiet," says Winner, who has been here since Sept. 29, overseeing the IDF forces.
As he eats his lunch -- a pastry filled with dates -- he adamantly denies international claims that IDF troops are being too aggressive.
His rules of engagement are straightforward, he says in English: Soldiers on the front lines are to shoot only tear gas canisters, stun grenades and, if they feel their lives are in danger, rubber-coated steel bullets. And they are always to aim below the waist, preferably at the knees, he says.
Only the Israeli snipers on the rooftop of the nearby City Hotel can shoot live ammunition and their shoot-to-kill orders must come from Winner, a 13-year IDF veteran. "Since the first day, every time we shoot a person, it is because they deserved it, because they shot at us first," Winner says. "You don't want to shoot civilians and kids. On the other hand, you don't want your soldiers on the front lines to be killed. If I could, I'd shoot the kids with the Molotov cocktails. I'd give my soldiers a 'shoot-to-kill' order. But instead, we hit them in the knee."
Winner disputes reports that Palestinians are throwing only rocks by pointing out bullet holes on the hood of his green Jeep that he says were shot by Palestinian snipers last week. "These weren't made with BB guns," Winner says. "The Palestinians are starting to engage us in full-scale war. That's why we're firing back."
As 200 Palestinian youths rush toward the two Israeli Army Jeeps, Winner calls in reinforcements. "Go with the gas! Go with the gas!" he radios to two Jeeps standing nearby. "Go with the stun, too."
A soldier from inside the one of the Israeli Army Jeeps fires six tear gas canisters in the direction of the youths. Another fires at least three stun grenades that explode with a loud noise but do little else.
But the youths pick up the tear gas canisters and lob them back at the soldiers. They also continue to throw more Molotov cocktails and rocks. There are so many rocks hitting the Jeeps that one nearly disappears from view. Also, the Palestinian snipers are firing with such intensity that bullets can be seen bouncing off the street.
Three more Israeli Jeeps race to the front lines. At Winner's direction, the soldiers jump out and begin shooting rubber-coated steel bullets at the youths. Palestinian boys appear to be falling at the rate of one a minute.
Palestinian ambulances, their horns blaring and lights flashing, begin racing toward the front lines to pick up the wounded. But before picking up an injured youth, one ambulance can be seen dropping off two buckets of rocks and a crate of bottles to be used as Molotov cocktails.
Seconds later, another ambulance races onto a nearby hill, its horn blaring and lights flashing. But there are no youths on the hill. The driver gets out and fires two shots at the tank in a vain effort to hit the Israeli soldiers before jumping back in and driving off.
"Restrain your fire! Restrain your fire!" Winner yells. "You don't know if there is anyone else in there."
Israeli soldiers have long claimed, and Palestinian officials have long denied, that ambulance drivers were being used to shuttle ammunition in the intifada.
An Israeli sniper, atop a nearby hotel, interrupts Winner.
"Erez, Erez, they are shooting from atop four different buildings. One of them is the PA building," the sniper says. PA stands for Palestinian Authority building. "He is a policeman. I recognize him."
"Take them out," Winner barks back to the sniper. "Take them out."
"Erez, I can't. I can't see them. They shoot and disappear," the sniper says. He adds that several of the snipers have mobile phones attached to their ears as if they are taking orders from someone else. Last week, several Palestinian policemen in the West Bank and Gaza said they would be joining in the intifada to defend their people.
Then the Israeli military video cameraman and a sniper, both on different rooftops, radio in at the same time that a Palestinian man in his 20s appears to be carrying "a missile." Through binoculars, the man can be seen removing what appears to be a handheld rocket launcher from the truck of a car and, with the help of some youths, hiding it behind a rock.
Just then, automatic gunfire erupts from four buildings to the right as if to distract the Israelis. Soon after, six car tires and a Dumpster are set afire in an effort, Winner says, to block the view of the Israeli soldiers with the smoke.
As the smoke builds, an Israeli scout atop one of the buildings reports that Palestinian cars are driving to the right of the front lines to unload semi-automatic weapons. The claim could not be independently verified.
Then a pickup flying the Hamas flag races toward the front lines pulling the first of several abandoned car frames. Palestinian youths untie the frames and stand them up to use as shields against the bullets.
"This is a coordinated attack," Winner says. "First the snipers, then the kids, then the fires, then the cars. The kids and smoke provide cover for the gunmen."
Winner calls his commander on a cell phone for permission to use "bigger firepower. We need the tank to take out the snipers."
The permission is granted, and minutes later, a tank at the military base about 200 yards behind the Jeep unleashes a barrage of large-caliber fire at one of the abandoned apartment buildings. The noise is nearly deafening.
Some of the youths begin withdrawing and running for cover. The attack has evolved into a big gun battle. Palestinian snipers are now shooting from 10 different locations, an Israeli scout says. Bullets are hitting the Jeeps, street signs, trees and road. The shots are so powerful they are blowing apart stone fences. Journalists, who have been filming the action, abandon their cameras and run.
"This is one of the worst I've seen," Winner says as bullets hit the hood of his Jeep. He orders Jeeps to resupply those on the front lines with ammunition. He also calls in more reinforcements. He now has 12 Jeeps, 36 soldiers and a tank at his disposal.
Still, his troops have stopped only one Palestinian sniper, who had been shooting from behind a rock in the middle of a field.
"These (snipers) are professionals. They know what they're doing," he says. "Forget the boys; these men are out to kill us."
TV, KIDS LEAVE
The gun battle continues for four hours, during which there are several lulls in the shooting.
As darkness moves in, many of the television journalists, who had been filming on the Palestinian side of the Ayosh Junction, pack up their gear and leave. So do the youths.
"The kids only want to die when the TV cameras are on so they can get the sympathy of the world," Winner says. "They'll be back tomorrow, as soon as the media arrive ."
Later, Palestinian doctors at Ramallah Hospital report that at least 60 youths are hospitalized with gunshots to the head, chest, groin and legs. At least one died. An IDF spokesman refutes the figures.
Senior Hamas activist Salah Tilahme, reached by telephone Sunday in the West Bank city of Hebron, warned that an escalation of the intifada in Ramallah was "now inevitable.
"We have weapons, resources and people we haven't yet used," Tilahme said. "What you're seeing is just the beginning. What the boys have begun, we are now going to finish."