Once again I have been trying to write something for several days, but each time I think that I'm ready to send a letter something worse happens. In the last few days, six Israelis - two civilians and four soldiers - have been killed by Palestinian gunfire. With the controversy over the American elections and the floods in Europe I gather that Israeli news doesn't make headlines overseas, but unfortunately the attacks continue here. Far from subsiding, every few days we are faced with new 'escalations' in Palestinian violence. In particular, the focus has shifted from mass riots to what Israeli leaders have begun to call a guerrilla war of attrition, characterised primarily by automatic gunfire at Israeli civilians and soldiers near areas under full or partial Palestinian rule.
Late yesterday afternoon, three Israelis were killed and seven injured when Palestinian terrorists opened fire with automatic weapons at two Israeli vehicles on the main road between Jerusalem and Nablus/Shechem, at the junction with the Neveh Tzuf road. The terrorists first overtook an Israeli car, killing a woman passenger, 42-year-old Sarah Lisha, and wounding two others. Lisha, a mother of 5 from Neveh Tzuf, was a high school physical education teacher returning from work. They then drove past a bus carrying soldiers on their way to guard duty at nearby Jewish villages. They sprayed it with over 50 bullets, killing 19-year-old Amit Zaneh of Netanya and 18-year-old El'ad Wallenstein of Ashkelon. Five other soldiers were injured. The gunmen are believed to have fled south towards Palestinian Authority-controlled Ramallah. Ziyad Abu 'Ein, a senior official of Fatah, Arafat's faction of the PLO, released a statement on behalf of the organisation saying the the shootings were legitimate actions in the intifada against Israel.
Later that evening, an Israeli truck was shot at near the Kissufim junction not far from Palestinian-controlled Gaza. The driver, 36-year-old Gaby Zaguri, a father of 3 from Netivot, was killed. A car travelling just ahead of the truck narrowly missed being hit by the gunfire.
I feel like our luck just ran out during the last few days. Over the past six weeks, so many Israelis have avoided death or serious injury by millimeters. Time and time again, we've seen bullet-riddled Israeli homes and cars, windshields smashed by rocks, and bomb-damaged busses, the occupants miraculously escaping with no more than minor injuries. Israel Television reporter Benny Liss remarked that for every roadside bomb which explodes, there are several which either fail to detonate or are defused by Israeli patrols, and therefore go unreported. The Palestinians have carried out over 1,400 shooting attacks against Israelis during this time, with scores of bullets fired in many of the attacks. It was only a matter of time before they hit their targets as accurately as they did yesterday.
Though drive-by shootings at Israeli vehicles have become increasingly common over recent weeks, there has been a further escalation in the last few days. Last night Israeli cars were fired upon near Shilo, just north of the afternoon's fatal shooting, and near Alfei Menasheh, close to Kalkilya. The night before, two Israelis were wounded when shots were fired at their car on the road near the Jewish town of Neveh Tzuf, west of yesterday's shooting. And last week, two Israelis were wounded near Ma'aleh Levona, just north of yesterday's attack. Israeli intelligence suspect the same terror cell may be behind all these attacks in the same area.
Saturday night, a civilian Israeli bus was fired upon north of Hebron; the vehicle was damaged but no one was hurt. Israeli vehicles have also come under Palestinian fire throughout Gaza - including the fatal shooting of an Israeli woman on Wednesday - as well as near Kalkilya, near Hebron, on the tunnel road south of Jerusalem, and near Jericho, among other places.
There has been little respite from Palestinian gunfire in the southern Jerusalem neighbourhood of Gilo. On Sunday, gunfire attacks on Gilo took place in midmorning, while schools were in session. Children were relocated to classrooms not facing the Palestinian-controlled cities of Bethlehem and Beit Jala, though this was difficult, as many classroom windows face the pastoral valley and picturesque villages from which the Palestinian gunmen launch their attacks.
Other Jewish communities targeted by Palestinian gunmen over the last few days include 'Utniel, Susia and Beit Haggai south of Hebron, the Hebron Jewish Quarter, Psagot and Beit El near Ramallah, Kadim and Ganim near Jenin, Itamar and Brakha near Nablus/Shekhem, Kokhav Hashahar and Vered Yeriho near Jericho and Neve Dekalim, Kfar Darom and other Jewish communities in Gaza.
When I last wrote about Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, the Israeli army had decided to open the site to Jewish worshipers for the traditional commemoration of the death of the biblical Rachel last Thursday, after it had been closed for the last six weeks. When the day arrived, though, the army reversed itself, explaining that there had been reliable warnings of terrorist attacks on Rachel's Tomb, making it too dangerous to allow visitors to the site. This ruling triggered two different reactions from Jewish religious authorities: many rabbis accepted it, saying that the risk to people's lives was more important than memorial prayers at Rachel's Tomb. Others disagreed, arguing that by announcing that the site would be closed if terrorist attacks were expected, Israel was effectively encouraging the terrorists, in the long run risking more lives. They feared that the Palestinians would be encouraged by their success last month in evicting the Jewish yeshiva (seminary) from Joseph's Tomb in Nablus/Shekhem, which they subsequently ransacked and rebuilt as a mosque. Statements in the Palestinian press have expressed the hope that Rachel's Tomb would be the next Jewish holy site to be claimed for Islam.
In place of the traditional prayer memorial event at Rachel's Tomb, a substitute ceremony was planned at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Not everyone was satisfied with this, though, and scores of worshipers gathered at the southern exit from Jerusalem towards Bethlehem in hopes of making their way to the tomb. The army enforced its decision to close the site and prevented people from approaching. As the day progressed, though, and the area around Rachel's Tomb remained quiet, the army agreed to allow a delegation of religious Knesset Members to enter the site. They were transported to and from the tomb on a bulletproof bus with army escorts. Only ten visitors were allowed, just enough for a minyan (prayer group). But at least the traditional memorial prayers were held. The Fatah faction of the PLO, which has been at the forefront of the current attacks, issued a statement congratulating itself on the successful attempt in frightening away Jewish worshipers from the site.
Before long it became clear why the army was so concerned about security at Rachel's Tomb: later that day not far from Bethlehem, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against Hussein Ebayyat, an active terrorist in the Fatah Tanzim militias, killing him by firing on his car from a helicopter while he was en route to an attack in the Bethlehem area, according to Israeli intelligence. Ebayyat has been responsible for many attacks on Israelis in the Bethlehem area over the last six weeks, including the murder of Max Hazan on October 2, the killing of David Hen Cohen and Shlomo Adashina last week, and shooting attacks on the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Gilo, including the one in which border policeman Shimon Ohana was severely injured. (Ohana, who was checked into the hospital in a state of clinical death with a bullet in his heart, last week made a miraculous recovery and is doing well.) Today, Israeli Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz said he believes the most effective military response to the Palestinian attacks is to directly target the perpetrators.
On Friday morning Palestinian gunmen once again opened fire on Rachel's Tomb, killing an Israeli soldier, 20-year-old Shahar Vakrat from Lod. Saturday night, however, the situation had calmed down and Jewish worshipers were again allowed to visit the site, traveling on bulletproof buses. Sunday night, Palestinian gunfire on Rachel's Tomb resumed.
On Saturday, two Palestinian gunmen ambushed an Israeli patrol jeep near Gush Katif, a Jewish area of Gaza, killing Avner Shalom, a 28-year-old reserve soldier from Eilat, and wounding one of his comrades. The Israeli soldiers returned fire on the gunmen's car, killing them. A four-hour gun battle ensued with Palestinian snipers, who tried to prevent the Israelis from investigating the incident. When they eventually reached the gunmen's vehicle, the Israeli soldiers discovered that the assailants bore badges of the Palestinian Police, though they were operating in civilian clothes. The road where the incident took place is a major access route for Jewish residents in the area. It had recently been reopened to Palestinian traffic as part of the Peres-Arafat ceasefire understandings. It didn't take the Palestinians long to take advantage of Israel's ceasefire compliance to attack Israeli traffic on the road.
The other night Jason spoke to a cousin in the town of Kfar Saba, a typical Israeli suburban town north of Tel Aviv, but just a few hundred metres (yards) from Palestinian-controlled Kalkilya. She was tense, describing how the sounds of gunfire from Kalkilya keep her awake at night, as Palestinian snipers attack Israeli checkpoints in the area. Israelis living in the nearby villages of Kokhav Yair (prime minister Barak's home town) and Tzur Yigal have been forced to take lengthy detours, as their main road to Kfar Saba passes by the edge of Kalkilya and is a frequent target of Palestinian attacks. The prime minister no longer uses the helicopter pad near his Kokhav Yair home because it has come under Palestinian fire. Furthermore, the only reasonable detour route for residents of Kokhav Yair and Tzur Yigal runs straight through the Israeli Arab town of Tira, which despite decades of peaceful relations has suddenly turned hostile to their Jewish neighbours, with residents occasionally stoning Jewish through traffic.
Israelis continue to be injured in Palestinian rock-throwing attacks. A baby required hospital treatment Sunday after she was hit in the head by a rock thrown at the car she was travelling in near Beitar, southwest of Jerusalem. The main road from Beitar to Jerusalem has been the frequent target of Palestinian rock-throwing attacks, in which several Israeli civilians have been hurt and many cars damaged. Also Sunday, an Israeli ambulance was hit by stones near Hizme, northeast of Jerusalem. That stretch of road has been closed several times due to similar attacks.
On Saturday night, along the Trans-Samaria Highway east of Petach Tikva, Israeli civilians were wounded in several rock-throwing attacks near Elkana, Oranit and Ariel. Among the injured were two children. A few nights ago an Israeli woman was wounded by rocks thrown by Palestinians on the tunnel road south of Jerusalem. Last night two Israelis were wounded by Palestinian rock throwing north of Jericho, while they were travelling on the Jordan Valley highway, one of Israel's chief north-south arteries which connects Jerusalem with northeastern Israel. This road has also become one of the main foci for Palestinian attacks over the last six weeks. On Sunday Knesset Member Yuli Edelstein suffered a smashed windshield east of Beit Shemesh, but emerged otherwise unharmed from the attack. These are just some of the rock-throwing attacks in recent days, most of which resulted, fortunately, in lucky escapes.
Basically, we have a guerrilla war going on down the road from us. Prime Minister Barak and his ministers continue to advocate restraint in response to the Palestinian onslaught. They want to avoid anything which might lead to a further escalation, giving Arafat an excuse to call for international intervention or bring other Arab states into the conflict. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in particular made belligerent comments about Israel in his recent speech at the conference of Islamic states in Qatar this week.
Absurdly, despite the intifada, Israel continues to transfer tens of millions of dollars to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority in accordance with the economic agreements in the Oslo Accords. Much of this money is siphoned off into private bank accounts belonging to Arafat and other senior PA officials. Very little of it makes its way to the Palestinian Authority treasury, let alone to the Palestinian people. Arafat even has a slush fund account at the main Tel Aviv branch of Israel's Bank Leumi, but Israel has not even threatened to freeze this bank account. The same Palestinian leaders who orchestrate the campaign of attacks against Israelis continue to enjoy the use of their VIP passes, which allow some of them to travel freely throughout Israel and to avoid most security inspections. While many Palestinian civilians have been unable to enter Israel to go to work and have been suffering considerable economic hardship, their leaders live comfortably off their considerable slush funds. Many in Israel believe that freezing the assets of Palestinian leaders would help pressure them to return to negotiations, without harming the Palestinian civilians. The government disagrees, arguing that economic sanctions would be perceived as acts of siege and portrayed as harming civilians, whether or not that is actually true. Furthermore, Israel fears undermining Arafat, lest an even more hostile leader take his place.
In addition the PA owes millions of dollars in unpaid bills to the Israel Electric Company, but Israel has not threatened to disconnect the electric supply to Palestinian-controlled areas, for humanitarian reasons. Israel's Dor Energy corporation, which has the exclusive contract to supply the PA with fuel, continues to do so unhindered. This is the fuel which powers the cars used in drive-by shootings, the vehicles used by Palestinian militias and police to transport gunmen to and from attacks, the plane Arafat travels on to world capitals and in which, according to Israeli intelligence, he smuggles weapons and ammunition for his fighters. Residents of the southern Israeli village of Kfar Maimon protested today at the Dor Energy terminal which supplies Gaza, blocking the trucks from leaving the terminal. Israeli police dispersed the demonstrators and let the supplies through, in accordance with government policy.
I can't believe it's been almost seven weeks. All the attempts to negotiate an end to the attacks - the Paris talks, the Sharm el-Sheikh international conference, meetings with President Clinton and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Peres's trip to Gaza to meet Arafat - all the supposed ceasefire agreements have resulted in nothing but more Palestinian attacks and more Palestinian demands.
Meanwhile, on the news tonight we saw film which was broadcast on Palestinian Television, showing a group of eight-year-old boys training how to attack Israelis. While one of them dressed up as an Israeli soldier, the rest were shown how to assault him, how to throw rocks accurately and how to evacuate their wounded. It doesn't look like the Palestinians are preparing for peace any time soon. I wish I could be more optimistic, but the end doesn't seem to be in sight.