As you probably all know by now, on Wednesday a large car bomb exploded in the centre of the Israeli coastal city of Hadera, north of Netanya. Two civilians, 20-year-old Shoshana Reiss and 34-year-old Meir Brami, were killed and 62 were injured, several seriously.
Wednesday afternoon at about 4:50pm I was on the verge of sending out another letter when I decided to wait until after the 5pm news, just to see if there were any new developments. By 5:25pm the news was winding down with reports on the US elections and the usual end-of-bulletin lighter items. Just then one of Channel 2's correspondents appeared in the studio, glued to his mobile phone, as the news anchor said something about preliminary reports of an explosion in Hadera.
Even from those initial reports it was clear that this was a big bomb, heard from miles away, rattling windows in every corner of the town. Here we go again, I thought. I didn't need to see the pictures from the scene. Sadly, like all Israelis and many Jews around the world, I know it by heart: the burnt-out cars and buses, the shattered windows, damaged shops with their smoke-blackened wares scattered over the bloodied pavement and, in the midst of it all, the wounded trapped by twisted metal or sitting dazed and bleeding on the sidewalk where only seconds earlier they had been going about their business. Once again Palestinian terrorists have brought death and destruction to the very heart of ordinary Israel, to a typical sleepy, middle of the road Israeli town.
This isn't the first time that Hadera has been bombed. Earlier this year a small bomb went off near the town's shuk (market) wounding 21. I remember clearly the bus bombing perpetrated by a Hamas suicide bomber in 1994. It was April, on Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day for all those who have fallen in the many wars and terrorist attacks which have been our lot since even before the state was founded. Jason had proposed to me less than a week earlier and we were eagerly discussing wedding plans. All around Israel the bus terminals were crowded with people going to memorial ceremonies and students and soldiers going home for the next day's Independence Day holiday. I was in Jerusalem that morning, on a bus on the way to meet Jason. The driver usually has the radio on in Israeli buses, and I wasn't really listening that carefully, but suddenly the announcer's voice changed, reporting that a bomb had gone off in Hadera's central bus station. Five people were killed in that bombing, and dozens more were injured.
On Wednesday another Palestinian bomber returned those scenes to Hadera, with its drab concrete low rise buildings, sun-bleached pavements, small stores and sea breezes. Like almost every population centre in Israel, Hadera is within easy reach of Palestinian-controlled areas. Hadera also has many Israeli Arab neighbours, such as the village of Baka el Gharbiya, who have traditionally had friendly relations with the town. As with the Jewish villages in the area, residents of nearby Arab villages come to work in the town, shop there and rely on Hadera's services. Some own shops and businesses there too.
Among the Israelis injured by Wednesday's bomb were Husam abu Husain and his baby daughter Thara, who suffered burns over 15% of her body and is currently in critical condition at the special burns unit in Haifa's Rambam hospital. Her father has been moved from Hadera's hospital to Haifa to be near her. The two had gone to Hadera for pizza, and were in the pizzeria when it was destroyed by the blast. Seventeen year old Avihai Peretz, who was working in the family pizza shop, was also critically injured. He was airlifted to Haifa's hospital with severe head injuries. Tzafrira Levi, aged 72, who owns a household goods store on the same street, was also among the seriously wounded. Her shop, her life's work, was damaged beyond repair. In total thirty shops and businesses were damaged, along with 100 homes. Several buildings were so seriously damaged that they will have to be pulled down.
Each day's news brings new tragedies. On Thursday an Israeli soldier, Lt Edward Metchnik, 21, of Be'er Sheva, was killed and two of his comrades and a Palestinian police officer wounded when an explosion took place in the Israeli section of the joint Israeli-Palestinian liaison office (DCO) in Neveh Dekalim, Gaza. The DCOs are staffed by Israeli and Palestinian officers, whose role is to coordinate arrangements for humanitarian situations and the like. Despite the current troubles, these liaison offices have continued to operate, with relations between the Israeli and Palestinian staff remaining good, often friendly.
At about noon Thursday, the Palestinian officers suddenly started leaving their side of the DCO building, some complaining that they didn't feel well. One Palestinian officer, who was meeting with the Israelis at the time, saw his colleagues running away and suggested to the Israelis that something may be wrong. He and the Israeli officers started leaving the building when the bomb went off. It appears that the bomb was planted on the wall separating the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the office. Israel's regional commander Col. Shlomo Dagan called the attack "disgraceful", as the DCOs are the primary remaining channel for Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, in particular on humanitarian matters. Israeli deputy defence minister Ephraim Sneh remarked that the DCOs are among the few places where Israeli and Palestinian flags fly side by side, with all that symbolises, and now the Palestinians have blown up the Israeli side. In response, Israel concluded it could no longer trust its counterparts in the DCOs and asked the Palestinians to leave the buildings, which they have refused to do. Israel has said it will not force the issue.
In another incident Thursday an Israeli soldier, Sgt Samer Hussein, 19, from the Galilee village of Hurfesh, was killed and his comrade critically wounded by Palestinian gunfire shot from Palestinian-controlled Gaza at an Israeli position on the Israeli side of the perimeter fence. Israel returned fire, killing a Palestinian policeman and wounding another. Earlier that day two bombs went off in the same area, near the fence of Kibbutz Erez. Israeli soldiers opened fire on the bombers, killing one and injuring another who was later captured.
On Tuesday an Israeli civilian was killed only a few dozen meters from the site of Monday's bus bombing near Kfar Darom. Itamar Yefet, 18, was hit in the head by a single shot from a Palestinian sniper hiding in roadside bushes as he drove from his home village of Netzer Hazani to Kfar Darom to pay a condolence call to the families of Monday's bombing victims.
Last night Palestinian gunmen in Beit Jala resumed their assault on Gilo, hitting seven apartments. No one was wounded, though there were some close calls. Other Jewish residential areas which have come under Palestinian fire in the last few nights include Psagot, Beit El, Elon Moreh and the fishing village of Duggit in northern Gaza. The Jewish holy site of Rachel's Tomb, near Gilo, was fired upon from Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem.
Several Israelis were wounded over the last three nights when their vehicles were attacked by Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Last night Palestinians threw firebombs at two Israeli buses travelling near Samuel's Tomb north of Jerusalem, injuring two yeshiva students. Two nights ago a firebomb was thrown at an Israeli bus as it passed the Israeli Arab village of Majd el Krum, en route to the Jewish town of Karmiel in the Galilee. Two passengers were wounded. Four passengers were hurt when a train was stoned by Arabs while passing through an Arab neighbourhood of the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Ramle, west of Modi'in. Two Israeli civilians were wounded by Palestinian rock throwers when their car was hit on the road to Beitar Illit south of Jerusalem. On Wednesday night a resident of Psagot was lightly wounded when bullets hit his car as Palestinians in the Palestinian-controlled town of El-Bireh opened fire on the Psagot access road. Last night two roadside bombs were detonated as a bus drove past on the tunnel road, south of Jerusalem. Fortunately the bus was empty, though the driver was lightly wounded. These are only a selection of the dozens of attacks which take place every night on Israeli vehicles travelling near Palestinian and some Israeli Arab areas. Thankfully most attacks miss their targets, while many Israelis manage to escape with "only" a rock-smashed windshield or a bullet-riddled car or bomb-damaged bus, but that doesn't make the sheer volume of attacks any less serious.
Over the last few days the Israeli army has succeeded in preventing several attacks and in capturing their perpetrators. For example, on Tuesday soldiers of the Golani brigade discovered a Palestinian terror cell planting a roadside bomb near the Kisufim crossing in Gaza. The other night Israeli soldiers managed to capture the Palestinian gunmen who have been firing upon Jewish vehicles near Kalkilya and Alfei Menashe. Israeli police have also arrested several Palestinians responsible for rock throwing and firebombings in the Shomron area, west of Nablus/Shekhem. Among those caught were a Palestinian police officer and a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the more radical factions of the PLO.
On Tuesday morning Israeli soldiers set up a roadblock near the Jewish village of Morag in southern Gaza, in the hope of catching other wanted militiamen responsible for attacks against Israelis over past weeks. When a car whose occupants were identified as Fatah Tanzim militiamen tried to charge the checkpoint the soldiers opened fire, killing the Tanzim men. I was shocked to see foreign news reports describe this as an unprovoked Israeli attack on unarmed Palestinian civilians, and portray the killing of these armed terrorists running a roadblock as morally equivalent to the killing of Israeli civilians on Hadera's main street.
In what is becoming a familiar pattern, Arafat last night hinted that he might be interested in a ceasefire. Deputy defence minister Ephraim Sneh met secretly with senior Palestinian officials, including Arafat's chief of staff, to discuss a possible ceasefire, possibly along the lines of the plan that US secretary of state Madeleine Albright presented to Yasser Arafat. One point of the Albright plan proposes buffer zones between Israeli and Palestinian-controlled areas. The Americans have yet to clarify what this means:who would maintain these buffer zones? Obviously the Palestinians would not accept an Israeli presence, and in recent days Israel has lost all faith in the Palestinian security forces. It seems Albright may be considering a multinational force under US auspices, akin to what Arafat has been demanding for the last two months, to "protect" the Palestinians from Israeli "aggression". Israel is vehemently opposed to such an arrangement. Previous experience with such forces, for example in Lebanon, has shown that they do nothing to prevent attacks on Israelis, while intervening when Israel tries to defend itself against attack. They are used by the other side as human shields from which to attack Israel, while Israel cannot respond for fear of hitting the international observers. If this is what Albright has in mind, it is the equivalent of rewarding the Palestinians for starting this campaign of violence. Why should aggressors get "protection" against the people they're attacking?!
Will there be a ceasefire? Who knows. A pattern seems to have developed whereby after a major Palestinian attack, which may be expected to draw an Israeli response, Arafat suddenly indicates interest in a ceasefire. Israel calls off its response and pulls back its forces, only to see the Palestinians take advantage of the lull to improve their positions and resume attacks with greater vehemence. Quite frankly we no longer trust Arafat nor have any faith in his ceasefires, and many Israelis doubt whether we'll ever be able to reach a peace agreement with him.
On a more positive note, on Wednesday morning the mukhtars (community leaders) of several Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem visited Gilo to express solidarity with the local residents who have come under Palestinian sniper fire for weeks now. The visit was organised by Ayoub Kara, a Knesset Member from the right-wing opposition Likud party. Kara, a member of the Israel's Arabic-speaking Druze religious minority, has been instrumental in developing cooperation between Jewish and Arab community leaders in Jerusalem. The delegation was led by Zuhair Hamdan, mukhtar of Sur Baher, an Arab village adjacent to the Jewish neighbourhood of Talpiot, with which Hamdan worked to foster good relations. Hamdan has also been a leading figure in resisting Prime Minister Barak's plans to hand over Jerusalem's Arab neighbourhoods to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, as proposed during July's Camp David talks. Hamdan has called for a referendum allowing Jerusalem Arabs to choose whether they want to be ruled by Arafat or remain under Israeli sovereignty. In general, Jerusalem's Arabs have not participated in the current violence against Israelis, with many of the incidents in Jerusalem perpetrated by Arabs from Palestinian-ruled areas.
Other mukhtars on the Gilo visit were from Beit Hanina, Anata and Bet Safafa. Bet Safafa adjoins Gilo and enjoys warm relations with the Jewish neighbourhood. The house of Bet Safafa's mukhtar was recently firebombed by Palestinians who resent his friendship with Israelis. The mukhtars called for an end to the suffering of the residents of Gilo and Beit Jala, neighbouring areas which traditionally have had peaceful relations, and called upon Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak to return to negotiations. They hope to visit Palestinian-controlled Beit Jala as well. It's heartwarming to see community leaders work for peace in this way. Hamdan said he thinks it's important for local leaders to do their part in easing tensions.
As I finally conclude this letter, the radio just reported that an Israeli civilian was shot and killed by Palestinians who ambushed his car near the Jewish village of Migdalim southeast of Shekhem/Nablus. He was shot in the stomach. His name has yet to be released as his family have not yet been notified.