They grew up together, they attended the same school, they slept in the same room, they became partners in the same small village restaurant. On Sunday night, they were shot dead by the Israelis together. And yesterday afternoon, in the small graveyard on the windy hill top above Yabad a forgotten old stone hamlet south-east of the West Bank town of Jenin Bilal and Hilal Salah were buried together.
The Palestinian brothers were hit, according to their family, by 50-calibre bullets as they shouted abuse at an Israeli Army unit on the road below their village. "Bilal's brains spilled out of his head onto the ground just here," his eldest brother, Zuheir, said on the embankment of rubbish-strewn earth above a Jewish settlers' road. "We took Bilal to the hospital and it was only then that we realised Hilal was missing. When we got back, we found him lying just 10 metres away. He had also been hit in the head. They had died together."
Zuheir insisted that the brothers Bilal was 21 and Hilal two years younger were doing no more than shouting at the Israeli soldiers on the road beneath them, although one villager said that stones had been thrown at the Israelis by some of the 17 youths on the embankment on Sunday night. And stone-throwing, as every Palestinian knows, is a capital offence. Cheap, concrete blocks had been placed around the blood-stained earth where the two brothers died.
It was the intifada in microcosm, a lunatic mixture of exaggerated Israeli fear and hopeless sorrow. On the road below, Israeli soldiers perhaps the killers of Bilal and Hilal Salah had warned us against visiting the dirt poor village.
"I wouldn't go there," their officer said bleakly. "There's a funeral." But the funeral was long over and all we found was a circle of middle-aged men weeping in a room full of framed Korans and red plastic flowers, and the brothers' mother, Sada, sitting on the floor and crying beneath a cheap, pink blanket. The two youths were Yabad's first Palestinian "martyrs".
"The soldiers guard five Jewish settlements near here and we are exposed to gunfire every day and 50-calibre bullets are not normal ammunition," Zuheir said. "Those bullets go right through cinder-blocks and we had to close the school in case bullets came inside."
Bilal and Hilal Salah had four brothers and five sisters; Zuheir, like their dead father, was a labourer, but the two had invested their money in a small café which they opened just six months ago. Only two days before their deaths, they had put up the nameplate on their café, the "Flowered Traffic Circle Restaurant". The family had already printed up a set of postcard portraits of the dead brothers, their heads surrounded by hand-written Koranic inscriptions and the insignia of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
Zuheir spoke in a whisper, as if frightened of disturbing the other mourners. "They were always together. They even slept in the same room. Yes, they threw stones at the soldiers, but not often. They did everything together. And they died together. Our family is well known here in the village, our family is beloved." He used the word "beloved" mahboubim in Arabic rather than "respect'.
Down on that fatal road, the villagers had lit tyres in protest at the killings but by late afternoon the black smoke had drifted off over the stony fields, leaving coils of rusting wire on the burnt tarmac.
All around Yabad were the same pathetic signs of opposition to Israel's occupation. High up on the hills around the village, the red roofs of Jewish settlements, built illegally under international law, glowed in the afternoon sun, the hum of army-escorted convoys throbbing along the settlers' roads.
As Zuheir tells it, the Israelis regularly fire their machine gun each day even if they are confronted with no more than abuse but the road below the embankment must make a tempting target for the stones, which litter the rubbish tip.
A settlers' convoy passed us later, headlights ablaze, family cars and armoured buses sandwiched between armytrucks. If they heard shooting on Sunday, it's unlikely they knew who died. No Israeli soldier entered Yabad afterwards; the villagers were left to lower Bilal and Hilal Salah into the soft earth of the cemetery above their home, and to set plastic chairs in the family's little garden for the mourners.
© 2000 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.