THE little village of Hizma is no hotbed of radicalism. Its stone houses are set high on hills just outside Jerusalem in a biblical landscape of grey-green olive trees. Unlike the larger Palestinian towns, Hizma is still under Israeli control. There are no Palestinian gunmen here.
Yet in two days last week, Israeli soldiers shot and killed three of Hizma's teenagers. Two appear to have been gunned down in cold blood.
The men of Hizma have the big, calloused hands of workers and the older women wear traditional embroidered dresses. They are a world away from clashes that have become almost ritual in Gaza or in big West Bank towns such as Ramallah, ruled by the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat.
There, armed Palestinian police and militia sometimes fire back at Israeli soldiers and the threat they constitute ob-scures the fact that most of the 168 dead in five weeks of violence are young stone-throwers.
According to the Geneva Convention, the inhabitants of Hizma, on the West Bank, are entitled to Israeli protection. But the stories of the boys who died there give the lie to any claim that Israeli soldiers fire only when their own lives are threatened.
Khaled Abu Khalid was the first to perish in Hizma since what Palestinians call the "al-Aqsa intifada" began on September 28. That was the day Ariel Sharon, the Israeli right-wing leader, and hundreds of bodyguards provoked the first Palestinian riot when they strode into the Haram al-Sharif compound in the old city of Jerusalem, home to the al-Aqsa mosque.
The mosque is holy to Muslims as the place from which the prophet Muhammed leapt astride his steed to heaven.
Abu Khalid looked younger than his 17 years, but was relatively mature. He left school at 16 to earn money to help his mother and pay for his brother's studies.
When he died last week, he had two jobs, as a house painter in the morning and, in the afternoon, as a clerk in the local sweet shop. His money was more important than ever to his family because his father, like 300,000 Palestinian workers, has been unemployed since Israel sealed off the West Bank and Gaza at the beginning of the latest conflict.
Abu Khalid had renovated his mother's single-storey stone house, and started building a floor above it because he wanted to get married and live there with his wife. Yesterday his brother Shadi was kicking Khaled's half-built floor to pieces in a fury over his death as his mother sat in her room below. "I look at him and I remember how beautiful his eyes are," said Intissar Abu Khalid. She can speak only in a hoarse whisper; her throat is raw from crying. She is
curled against the wall of her sitting room, surrounded by women of the village.
"He made sure to dress well and he oiled his hair in the morning. How can they take this boy I raised for 17 years?"
Abu Khalid rose early on Thursday and told his mother he was off to work. Just before 8am, he joined a crowd of other teenagers at the entrance to the village, throwing stones at Israeli soldiers on the highway below.
The soldiers fired tear gas, then rubber-coated steel bullets, then live ammunition, a deadly escalation that took half an hour. One bullet hit Abu Khalid in the neck. He bled to death by 9am.
The deaths of the next two boys in Hizma were far more sinister. According to friends, relatives and three medical workers who were witnesses, they were defenceless when shot. Neither was a total innocent; they had been throwing stones. But even if there could be any justification for shooting teenage stone-throwers, there can be none here.
The clash between boys and Israeli soldiers had ended an hour earlier, and the nearest Israeli post was a mile away, across a deep wadi, or watercourse, far out of reach of the most optimistic teenager.
The clash that led to the deaths of Rami Amtaweh, 15, and Mahmoud Sayeed, 19, started because they were good friends of Abu Khalid.
After midday prayers and his funeral, they threw stones at the Israelis at the entrance to their village. There is no denying the teenage stone-throwers can be terrifying. When I arrived in Hizma, they were in full cry, whipping stones into the air with muscular arcs of their arms, sweating, hyped-up, oblivious to grenades of tear gas and the hard "pang" of rubber-coated steel bullets.
They whirled on my car coming up behind them, stones poised, then relaxed when a lookout on the street made a hand sign as if he was snapping a camera to show the car held a journalist.
The "battle" went on all afternoon. The Israelis, swathed in protective gear and behind a fortified post, pushed the kids back with tear gas whenever they surged forward.
Three ambulances from the Palestinian Red Crescent, the Arab version of the Red Cross, treated injured youths for gas inhalation and a few rubber bullet hits. By about 3.30pm, the rage of the boys was exhausted and they drifted away.
About 20 teenagers wandered up the street to a hill at the north end of the village, away from the Israelis, and gathered at a flat rocky open space that looks out over the hills.
The boys boasted to each other, joking and shouting about who had thrown the best stones. An ambulance had followed the boys up the hill, thinking there might be trouble, and had parked nearby, but given the distance from the nearest Israeli position, the three emergency medical workers relaxed.
As dusk fell the boys decided to roll a tyre up the hill onto the open space and light it. It would look like a beacon across the hills. Maher Asiya, one of the medics in the ambulance, recalls that he and his two colleagues decided to leave after about half an hour. There were no Israelis nearby, nothing the youths would get excited about.
"They were talking and joking to each other, kids, you know," Asiya said. It was over for the day.
As Asiya walked back to the ambulance and his colleagues climbed in, he was shaken out of his exhaustion. "I heard the sound of bullets, a burst of shots, for just a minute, maybe two minutes. I turned around, and three of the boys were on the ground," Asiya said. The teenagers scattered in panic, then ran back to help carry their friends to the ambulance. The teenager he was later to know as Sayeed had been shot in the chest. Amtaweh, 15, who had been talking to Sayeed, was shot
in the lower back and was bleeding horribly from the bullet's exit wound in his stomach.
Sayeed died in the ambulance; Amtaweh died on the operating table. The third boy, Abdul Karim Kana'an, 16, was shot in the leg. He lived.
Yesterday morning there were two large splashes of blood on the ground where the boys died. The Israeli army refused to comment, except to say that its soldiers adhered to the rules of engagement and did not fire unless their lives were endangered.
That was hard to reconcile with the scene. "I am so angry today," said Asiya as he sat in the Red Crescent offices. "There was nothing, nothing, happening. These boys were executed. They were killed in cold blood."
At his house in Hizma Ahmed Amtaweh, Rami's father, was too shocked to be angry. "I still don't believe it," he said. "He's just a boy. A boy. He came home yesterday. He ate chicken and rice."
His father smiled. Grief is unaccountable. His went so deep that the memory of his boy at lunch, rather than the body he had identified later, took him away for a moment.
Diplomatic moves to find peace continue. Both Arafat and Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, are to go to Washington this week. But feelings on both sides have hardened: the Palestinians with the killing of each stone-thrower; the Israelis after two of their own were murdered in a car bomb. What the victims of violence have in common is the wrath they have ignited.
Each death moves the possibility of peace further away.
Copyright 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd.