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Palestinian Youth Fighting Mad, Expecting Death

September 29, 1996|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NABLUS, West Bank — Yasser Antar expected to die during the battle to "liberate" Joseph's Tomb from Israeli soldiers on the edge of this Palestinian-run city last week. Instead, the 18-year-old found himself marching Saturday in the funeral procession of a fellow combatant and waiting for the fight to resume.

Like thousands of Palestinian youths who have battled Israeli soldiers in recent days, Antar is marking time to see if a meeting between Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will produce anything concrete for Palestinians. He doubts it.

In the three months since Netanyahu took office, Antar and his comrades had come to see the peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians as a dead end. Last week, Netanyahu's decision to open an archeological tunnel near Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque convinced them that he means to leave the Palestinians in isolated self-rule enclaves with Israel in control of the rest.

And now, with Israeli tanks and personnel carriers positioned outside Nablus since Thursday's battle at Joseph's Tomb, a Jewish holy site that houses a seminary, they are convinced that Netanyahu intends to reoccupy their cities and fractured homeland.

"We are angry and sad and feel as if we are going to explode inside," Antar said as he followed the flag-wrapped body to the cemetery. "The way to vent our anger is through weapons, even if they are only rocks."

Netanyahu blames Arafat for fomenting the demonstrations that resulted in combat between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police last week, but young men like Antar see things differently. They believe that their seven years of rock-throwing during the intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation brought Arafat back from exile to Nablus and the other Palestinian West Bank cities.

Now they say they think the relative calm that had prevailed under Arafat's rule may have been a mistake, giving Netanyahu the "false" sense of confidence to open the new tunnel door in disputed Jerusalem. They may resume fighting Israeli soldiers, they say, whether Arafat wants them to or not.

"We know that rocks are nothing compared to Israeli guns, but we have to use them because otherwise it is too easy for the Israelis to take over again," said 19-year-old mourner Bashar Numan.

"If the Israeli prime minister continues with his stubbornness, things are going to get worse. If he does not close the tunnel and redeploy troops from Hebron, we will not be quiet," warned Ekab Amer, 20, referring to the West Bank city where about 450 Jews live among more than 100,000 Arabs. "Yesterday, we took over Joseph's Tomb. Tomorrow, the settlements."

The Israeli army says it never lost control of the Jewish holy site during the battle that left six Israeli soldiers and two Palestinians dead. Israeli soldiers were trapped inside the tomb for several hours by the throng of Palestinian demonstrators and police officers, but eventually they were freed and replaced by others. Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers have blocked access to the shrine, which the army says remains in Israeli hands.

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But Amer said he feels that he "liberated" the tomb when he raised the red, white, green and black Palestinian flag there last week. He said he feels strengthened by the battle, in which the demonstrators say they burned nine Israeli jeeps with Molotov cocktails, preventing Israeli tanks and reinforcements from getting near. He was buoyed by the fire cover from Palestinian police, he said.

"Our will is stronger than theirs," said Majdi Ahbar, 27, of the Israelis, "because we want to die as martyrs and they don't want to die."

Death in combat for a homeland seems a likely destiny to many of these baby-faced men in their teens and 20s who are out of work and have plenty of time to nurse their anger.

Their fathers are unemployed or laboring only sporadically--a reflection of the 25% decline in the Palestinians' per capita income in the past three years. The young men used to sneak into Israel to knock on doors in the Jewish settlements looking for construction jobs, but stepped-up security makes that impossible now. So they spend their days walking the streets, borrowing money to buy cigarettes and pondering the failures of the peace process.

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They say they want to live and work in peace in an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But their prospects have been limited for so long that they cannot even imagine what they might do in such a state at peace with economic opportunities.

"I have never thought about that," Antar said.

Or perhaps they never wonder what they will do when they grow up because they do not expect to grow up. These thin, soft-spoken men with newborn mustaches say they think they will die young.

Antar smoked a cigarette as the mourners ahead of him shouted for revenge for the blood of their martyrs. He was handed a leaflet urging the mourners to obey their police--who have orders now to keep Palestinians away from the Israeli soldiers--and to be rational in these dangerous times.

But Antar and his friends showed more interest in another leaflet bearing the photograph of 20-year-old Wisam Masri, whose body is carried shoulder-high to its grave. It calls Masri a martyr and quotes a verse from the Koran saying that he is alive with God. The mourners said they are prepared to return to battle when the time is right.

"After a funeral like this," Antar said, "I always wonder if the next one will be mine."

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