RAMALLAH, West Bank (Sep. 30)
I made the phone call a day after a bloody battle erupted last week between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police on the outskirts of this West Bank town.
The local police station was almost empty. Everyone was either attending the funeral of the six Palestinian police killed a day earlier or out on the front lines, shooting at Israeli soldiers.
But Hussein a-Sheikh, the Ramallah police chief, sounded friendly on the phone.
“Come on over, by all means,” he told me in Hebrew, adding in Arabic, “You are most welcome.”
Despite the dangers involved, it was an invitation that I and some colleagues were not about to turn down.
It would provide us, we hoped, with a chance to talk to the people who had turned overnight from partners in the joint Israeli-Palestinian security patrols to bitter enemies firing at Israeli soldiers.
Ramallah witnessed the worst scenes of fighting Sept. 25, the first of three days of pitched battles between Palestinian police, Israeli soldiers, armed Israeli settlers and stone-throwing Palestinians.
The fighting, which spread in subsequent days throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, claimed the lives of at least 14 Israelis and at least 55 Palestinians before it subsided over the weekend.
But when I and my colleagues visited Ramallah, the battles were still raging, and it was unclear whether accepting a-Sheikh’s invitation was the best of ideas.
An hour after I got off the phone with him, we arrived at the northern outskirts of Ramallah.
The southern entrance to the town was still caught up in gunfire, but the northern end, just a few hundred yards from the Israeli military base at Beit El, was quite peaceful.
I stopped the car, and for a short while we considered our options.
The total calm around us was unnerving. There was still time to turn back.
But we opted to take our chances — a decision we would soon regret.
As I drove on the main road toward downtown Ramallah, we were confronted by a Palestinian policeman who was aiming his Kalashnikov rifle at us.
He eyed us suspiciously as he approached.
Only the mention of his boss, Cmdr. A-Sheikh, helped ease the tension.
“Do you carry any arms?” he said.
Of course not, we said, lying.
At this point we probably should have turned around and returned home. But a- Sheikh was expecting us, or so we thought.
It turned out that he was not.
After reaching the Ramallah police station, another group of suspicious police encircled us.
There was no officer in sight.
“A-Sheikh is out at the front,” we were told.
Can we wait for him?
Yes, by all means.
But at that moment, my colleagues saw a procession approaching the police station.
It was the funeral for the six dead police.
Without hesitation, we jumped in the car and sped out of town.
Half an hour later, we heard on the news that some of the mourners had grabbed rifles from the police guarding the station and had rushed toward the front line, firing in the air.
Only then did we realize that we probably had narrowly escaped being in the center of a difficult confrontation.
This incident threw into sharp relief the sudden, dramatic collapse of new truisms.
After three years during which the Palestinians had been regarded by many Israelis as partners in the peace process, they returned last week to their traditional role — bitter enemies.