Tonight begins Hoshana Raba, the 'Great Hosanna', the last day of the Sukkot festival and the last of the annual Days of Awe. Hoshana Raba is something of a final appeal date after the Days of Judgement (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), the last date on which God seals our fates for the coming year. It is traditional among many Jews to stay up all night studying religious texts or praying and reciting Psalms in a final appeal to God's mercy. This year, the sense of trepidation seems more palpable than usual.
The news at this end is, I'm sorry to say, not so good. Remember that ceasefire announced Tuesday at Sharm-a-Sheikh, the one Clinton made such a big deal of? Well, we've been sitting here wondering whether we dreamed all that, because there has been no ceasefire.
That's not to say that nothing has changed on the ground. Israel has kept its side of the bargain, reopening Gaza airport and lifting the blockade between Palestinian towns, which was put in place after last week's lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah. Prime Minister Barak also issued a statement the night after the summit calling for an end to violence and asking Israelis to continue exercising restraint.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, are continuing the violence. Shooting and rock throwing attacks against Israelis continue day and night in areas near Palestinian-ruled towns. Palestinian TV and radio, both under official Palestinian Authority control, continue to broadcast incitement to violence against Israel and Israelis. Arafat has yet to issue a public statement calling for his Fatah activists to stop attacking Israeli soldiers and civilians; the ceasefire declaration called upon him to make such a statement.
Last night there were two close calls in Gaza. In one incident, a bomb was detonated next to a civilian bus carrying about 40 Jewish women and children to their homes in the Gush Katif region of southern Gaza. Rounds of automatic fire were directed at the bus at the same time. The bus was severely damaged, but miraculously no one was injured. In the other incident, an explosion took place near the Israel/Egypt border post at Rafiah in southern Gaza. Apparently the bomb was being prepared for detonation near the Israeli side of the border post, but went off prematurely, injuring its Palestinian makers. (This sort of incident increases the reported Palestinian casualty toll, despite being self-inflicted.)
Also in Gaza, at the joint Palestinian-Israeli liaison offices at the Erez checkpoint, Palestinian police and civilians opened fire and threw stones at the Israeli section of the compound. Other Palestinian police present at the scene took no action to prevent the assault.
In Jerusalem, sporadic shooting continues to be directed at the Jewish suburban neighbourhood of Gilo from the nearby Palestinian-ruled village of Beit Jala. Over the last two days, concrete and earth defences have been erected at the edge of Gilo to protect houses which have been targeted by gunfire. Concrete barriers have been set up in front of homes, windows have been sandbagged, and residents have been encouraged to sleep in back rooms not facing the street, because several homes have been hit. Though Israel warned residents of Beit Jala to evacuate their homes pending a military operation to eliminate the Palestinian snipers, no such action has been carried out. This is the first time Israelis in Jerusalem have had to live under such conditions since the 1967 Six-Day War.
If yesterday people still hoped that Arafat might actually honour the ceasefire given a couple of days, today such hopes were dashed. This afternoon a group of about 40 Israeli Jews from villages in the Shekhem/Nablus area went as planned on a holiday outing to Mt Eval, which overlooks the Palestinian-ruled city of Nablus/Shekhem from the north but is in Israeli-controlled territory. It was on this mountain that the Israelites erected their first altar upon entering the Land of Israel after the Exodus from Egypt. There they held a ceremony of blessings and curses, with the curses read out from Mt Eval and the blessings from the facing mountain, Mt Grizim. After today's events, "mountain of the curses" seemed an all too appropriate nickname for this barren mountain.
The bus tour had been planned well in advance of the troubles and had been coordinated with the army, which supplied two jeep escorts. The tour bus stopped at Mount Eval and hikers followed their guide past the ancient altar and on to Joseph's Lookout, a spot from where you can see Joseph's Tomb. Traditionally, each day of Sukkot is associated with one of the Jewish people's founding fathers. Today was Joseph's day, and the group wanted to pay their respects to him, especially as, in the wake of the destruction of Joseph's Tomb by Palestinian mobs two weeks ago, Jews can no longer visit the tomb itself.
As the hikers proceeded along the trail, local Palestinians on the outskirts of Nablus/Shekhem opened fire on them from a distance. People scattered for cover behind boulders on the steep, exposed slope, while heavy gunfire continued. The army was alerted, and tried to come to their aid. Four Israeli hikers were injured by Palestinian gunfire. Over the course of hours, the Israeli army made every effort to evacuate the wounded for treatment and the rest of the party to safety. Heavy Palestinian gunfire kept the Israelis pinned down, while Palestinian anti-aircraft fire prevented the medical helicopters from reaching the wounded, and later from taking off.
Long after army doctors managed to reach the wounded and administer basic treatment, they were still unable to evacuate them to hospital. Meanwhile, soldiers tried to track down all of the hikers who had scattered for cover when the attack began. This task was made more difficult when night fell at about 5:30pm. The shooting started before 2pm Israel time; only at 8pm were the wounded finally evacuated, by which time one of them had died. Two of the injured are in a moderate to serious condition, one shot in the chest, the other in the legs. A third person was wounded lightly. As of 8:50pm Israel time all of the civilians were finally evacuated, though sporadic Palestinian gunfire continued.
We had been invited to celebrate the Simhat Torah festival, which begins tomorrow (Friday) night, with relatives in Gush Etzion south of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, their main access road to Jerusalem has been closed periodically over the recent weeks due to shootings, firebombs and rockthrowing. Just today shots were fired at Israeli vehicles on the Gush Etzion 'tunnel' road. We called the relatives, and they advised us to make other plans. The night before it had taken them several hours to get home from work in Jerusalem via tortuous detours, because the main road was closed again. On other nights they and other friends in the area have slept over in Jerusalem because the road home has been so unpredictable lately.
In stranger news, a massive explosion took place today at Arafat's security headquarters in Bethlehem, killing two members of his Force 17 elite guard unit and injuring 13. The Palestinians promptly issued a statement that the explosion was caused by gas cylinders in the building. Later, they issued a followup statement attributing the blast to explosives which were stored on the site after having been confiscated from Hamas terrorists. Israeli intelligence sources suspect that in fact the explosion may have occurred as a bomb was being prepared for use against Israeli targets. We'll probably never know. Israel offered emergency assistance in treating the wounded and extinguishing the fire, but the Palestinians flatly refused.
In what by now seems trivial, but which three weeks ago would have been shocking, today's local Modi'in newspapers report on a number of serious attacks against Israeli cars driving past the nearby Palestinian town of Beit Sira. Over the past week, two infants were wounded when the vehicles they were traveling in were hit by rocks. In addition, residents of the Jewish town of Makkabim have heard shots fired in their direction from neighbouring Beit Sira. Two Beit Sira youths were caught by police near the perimeter fence of Makkabim carrying bucketloads of rocks, apparently in preparation for highway attacks. Until the recent violence, Beit Sira had a busy shopping strip frequented by Jews from all over the region. Other residents of the town worked in Jewish businesses in the area. Modi'in-area residents have been shocked by the sudden turn of events.
Meanwhile, the Arab states prepare to convene an emergency conference in Cairo over the weekend. There have been some rays of hope. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak gave an interview on an Arab satellite station yesterday in which he took issue with those in the Arab world who have been calling for greater belligerency towards Israel. "What do they want, war?" he asked (paraphrasing). "War is not a game. You don't play games with war. I'm not prepared to fight a war until the last Egyptian soldier." This was in contrast with statements from leaders of Iraq, Libya and Yemen calling for war against Israel. Iraq and Libya have decided not to attend the Arab conference. There are also indications that Jordan and even Syria are eager to avoid a regional war, or even smaller-scale confrontations. We hope that these are positive signs, and more cautious Arab states will succeed in pulling Arafat back from the brink.
Other positive signs have appeared within parts of the Israeli Arab community. On a radio phone-in program a few nights ago, an Israeli Arab from the town of Kfar Kassem described the Peace Sukkah he and a Jewish friend in neighbouring Rosh Ha'Ayin had set up at the junction between the two towns. Arabs from Kfar Kassem had rioted at the junction two weeks ago, torching buildings in the Rosh Ha'Ayin industrial zone. When he heard that the junction was becoming known as the Junction of Fire, he wanted to turn it into the Junction of Peace. He described how the sukkah kept him busy from morning to late at night, as hundreds of visitors streamed in from across the country, including many Jewish members of Knesset. Residents came from both Kfar Kassem and Rosh Ha'Ayin. Unfortunately, the only Arab dignitaries to visit were the Kfar Kassem city council and mayor; national Arab figures did not appear. Israel's president Moshe Katzav was enthusiastic about the initiative and invited the organisers to visit the presidential sukkah in Jerusalem.
Other peace sukkot have been set up along the same lines in other mixed Arab-Jewish areas. Still, it will take a long time before the wounds of recent weeks heal, if ever. These initiatives have all come from Arab citizens of Israel; no such overtures have come from residents of Yasser 'Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Unfortunately many Israeli Arabs, including most of their leadership and Knesset members, remain hostile as well. Some Kafr Kassem Arabs tried to burn down the Kafr Kassem-Rosh Ha'Ayin peace sukkah earlier this week.