The events of today bring home once again what surreal times we're living in. This morning Jason and I went to the Dale Chihuly glass sculpture exhibit in Jerusalem's Old City. There, near the Jaffa Gate, life goes on as usual. Tourists and students mingle with Arabs, Israelis and security personnel. Arab taxi drivers wait for passengers, Christian information centres distribute guidebooks and Orthodox Jews walk past on their way to and from the Western Wall. There were not as many foreign tourists as usual, though there were some Scandinavian and German Christian groups, and many Israeli visitors. It was a beautiful autumn day, and the colourful glass creations glistened spectacularly against the backdrop of the stone fortress. The exhibit closes tomorrow after an 18-month run, having set a record for the most visitors to a temporary museum exhibit.
As we were leaving the museum we noticed a group of police on horseback galloping away in the direction of an Arab neighbourhood. Returning to the car, we turned on the radio to terrible news. Unidentified Palestinian gunmen had opened fire from close range on two Israeli security guards at the Israeli National Insurance (Social Security) office in an Arab area of Jerusalem. Both were in critical condition; one died later in the day. The murdered guard was Eish-Kodesh Gilmour, 25 and married, from the village of Mevo Modi'in, about 10 minutes down the highway from us (for those who have visited us, it's the Carlebach village with the Italian restaurant). Gilmour was working as a security guard while studying computer programming, and looked forward to leaving his job soon. His 22-year-old colleague, Itai Suissa of Jerusalem, is still undergoing surgery and fighting for his life following severe wounds to the head and chest. On this evening's news we saw that among the first officers to reach the scene were the mounted police we had seen in the morning.
This is the most recent, though not the most brutal, murder of Israeli civilians by Palestinians over the last few days. The body of an Israeli was found in the valley between the Palestinian village of Beit Jalla and the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo this morning, not far from the Gush Etzion tunnel road. The victim was identified as Amos Machluf, 30, who was last seen on Shabbat. Machluf had been bound hand and foot and then stabbed repeatedly. Police believe he was kidnapped from Gilo.
Earlier, on Saturday morning, the body of an Israeli civilian was discovered near Ramallah. He was riddled with bullets and then he and his car were set alight. It was difficult to identify the body, but the victim was eventually determined to be Maryk Gavrielov from the village of Bnei Ayish near Ashdod. Apparently Gavrielov had gone to Ramallah to meet Palestinian acquaintances at a cafe. The details are unclear since the Palestinian Authority won't cooperate with the investigation. Jerusalem police chief Yair Yitzhaki warned Israelis not to enter any Palestinian Authority controlled areas, even for social or business reasons, because it has become too dangerous.
In response to this series of brutal murders of Israeli civilians, Israel decided today to send a message to the Palestinian Authority that such attacks will not be tolerated. Israeli helicopter gunships attacked a number of buildings which served as Palestinian militia headquarters. Targets included the headquarters of the Fatah Tanzim militia in Nablus/Shekhem and El-Bireh, including the offices of Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, and the headquarters of Force 17, Arafat's personal guard unit, in Khan Yunis, Gaza, which also houses Tanzim offices. Warning shots were fired at nearby wasteland to allow occupants to evacuate the buildings in advance. Five Palestinians in a neighbouring building were lightly injured.
Aside from the coldblooded murders, there are other signs of a marked escalation in recent days. The Palestinians have shifted away from mass violent demonstrations and are concentrating instead on targeted, more "professional" attacks such as shootings and Lebanon-style roadside bombings. Several times over the last few days, bombs have been set off near schoolbuses carrying children from Jewish communities in Gaza. A soldier escorting one of the buses was injured, though miraculously no one else was hurt.
Meanwhile, the list of Jewish towns targeted by Palestinian gunfire continues to grow. Palestinian snipers are still shooting at Jerusalem's Gilo neighbourhood, at the village of Psagot near Ramallah, at Vered Yeriho near Jericho and at the Jewish quarter of Hebron. The Oasis Casino in Jericho, built and managed by an Austrian entertainment company, has been taken over by Palestinian snipers who have stationed themselves on its roof. Palestinian gunmen have also taken up positions in the village of El-Khadr, near Bethlehem, and have been targeting the Giv'at HaDaggan neighbourhood at the edge of the Jewish town of Efrat. Today shots were also fired at homes in the villages of Har Bracha near Shechem and Sussia in the southern Hebron mountains, and at an Israeli bus near the Jewish town of Alfei Menashe. These are all civilian targets, not military positions.
Aside from residential neighbourhoods, Palestinian snipers have targeted the checkpoint between the Palestinian-controlled town of Kalkilya and the Israeli town of Kfar Saba. Palestinian gunmen attacked the Israeli base of Mahane Ofer between the Palestinian-controlled city of Ramallah and the Israeli town of Givat Zeev; a gun battle ensued for several hours. Israeli positions have also been shot at by Palestinians near the Palestinian-controlled towns of Shechem/Nablus and Tulkarm, and an Israeli army patrol was attacked near the Jewish village of Yitzhar.
Throughout the Gaza region, Palestinian snipers have been attacking Israeli positions securing vital roads. According to a report last night, across the road from every Israeli position, the Palestinians have built office towers taller than the Israeli guard towers. When Israel raises the guard towers, the Palestinians add storeys to the office buildings. These buildings are now serving as sniper positions to attack Israeli bases and civilian traffic. The roads in question are under full Israeli control according to the Oslo agreements with the Palestinians, and Israel has been making every effort to keep them open and safe for civilian traffic. Yesterday, after access roads to some Jewish villages had become impassible due to Palestinian shootings and bombings, Israel sent tanks to clear the routes. The tanks never entered Palestinian-controlled areas, though some foreign news reports made it sound that way.
There has also been a renewed escalation of violence among Israeli Arabs. On Saturday night, firebombs were thrown at Jewish vehicles on the major Galilee road through Wadi Ara / Nahal Iyron. This afternoon the road was closed when Arab rioters threw rocks at passing Jewish vehicles.
Tensions remain high on the northern border as well. Following belligerent remarks by Syrian President Bashar Assad and recent shooting attacks on Israel's border with Lebanon, the Israeli army has ordered the closure of the Mt. Hermon ski site and nature reserve, fearing cross-border infiltrations. Violent demonstrations have taken place in recent days on the Lebanese side of the border, with rocks and bottles thrown over the border fence at Israeli positions.
Perhaps the strangest and most frustrating piece of news lately was an eyewitness account by a journalist covering a Palestinian riot yesterday near the Karni checkpoint between Israel and Palestinian-controlled areas of Gaza. As the rioters began to pose a threat to the lives of the Israeli soldiers, the soldiers fired warning shots in the air to scare them back. No one was hit. Immediately, however, four Palestinian ambulances appeared on the scene with sirens blaring, and proceeded to collect rioters acting "wounded". The entire episode had been staged for foreign news cameras. There is more to add on the media aspects of this conflict, but that will have to wait for another letter.
Meanwhile the Israeli government continues to emphasise that it is ready to go back to the negotiating table the moment the violence stops. Israel's acting Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami is due to fly to Washington for talks with the Americans on how the state of the peace process. We hope for the best, but it really doesn't look too good.