I got a message from a friend in Europe recently complaining that my recent letters are rather boring. You know what, she's right. I'm sorry for all the lists of attacks and casualties - I guess that after two months they do make rather boring reading - but that is what is happening here. I guess if you don't live here it's just a list, more random foreign news but for us, right now this is our lives. As most of them don't seem to make the foreign media I figured they might be worth mentioning.
I'd much rather be writing about the weather, the concert I went to last week, the movies, my students, the good book that I'm reading, the fun I'm having with the new camera my uncle gave me.... Life was certainly much less eventful when the traffic reports didn't include roads closed due to shooting or rioting, when we would phone some friends for a chat instead of anxiously checking up on people living 'on the front line', and when we went to sleep reading a good book or listening to music instead of hearing that evening's tally of attacks and casualties.
Late September, October and November are among the most pleasant months of the year. The weather cools down pleasantly after the summer heat, while the first rains of autumn turn the parched brown landscape green and bring the first wildflowers of the season. The trees are heavy with ripe fruit: olives, pomegranates, figs, dates, pears, mangos and more. Thousands of birds from northern latitudes make their way to Israel for the winter, and thousands more pass through on their way south to Africa. This is an ideal time for hikes, going to the beach, stargazing and enjoying nature. It's not for nothing that God gave the Jewish people some of our major festivals in the autumn, this most pleasant of Israeli seasons.
I should be writing letters about our activities over the religious holidays and the wonderful performances we've been to, about the music and theatre festivals this time of year, about the first flowers of the rainy season I've seen in the surrounding countryside, about the first wintering birds that I've spotted, about the nights growing cold, about trying to remember where we packed our winter clothes and the electric heaters.
This autumn though small everyday decisions have become far less mundane. Driving to Jerusalem Saturday night for a concert (yes, we still go to those, have to keep our spirits up...) we ruled out our usual route because there have been several attacks there lately. Actually we haven't taken it since the troubles began. Only last Friday an Israeli civilian was hurt on that road by a rock thrown at her car by local Palestinians. There were bad traffic jams on the main alternative route though, possibly worsened by so many motorists nervous about using the other highway. In the end we bypassed the traffic jam via a complicated back route on a tortuous rural mountain road running vaguely parallel with the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.
At least there we have alternate routes to take. In other parts of the country there aren't safe alternatives. This will sound trivial, but we have a voucher for a discounted weekend away in various guesthouses across the country. We were saving it to use for our anniversary, planning to spend the weekend somewhere up north in the lovely Beit She'an valley area. Well, that area has been safe lately, but the problem is getting there. There are two routes. The most direct is via the Jordan Valley, on the Jericho bypass road. A short stretch of that road which goes through the Palestinian-controlled village of Ouja has frequently been targeted by Palestinian rock-throwers and even gunmen. Just a few days ago a roadside bomb was detonated there. In recent weeks concerned citizens from other parts of the country have formed a volunteer organisation with jeeps and other large vehicles which provide escorts for people who need to drive on the Jordan Valley road. The principle is safety in numbers, as single cars are more often targeted than convoys.
The alternative, longer, route is via the Galilee on the Wadi `Ara/Nahal `Iyron road, which passes several Israeli Arab villages. Lately, some of their residents have taken to throwing rocks and sometimes firebombs at passing vehicles, and occasionally blocking the highway with burning tires. The stoning of a bus by Israeli Arabs near the Israeli Arab village of Fureidis, near Zikhron Ya'akov, on Tuesday night in which a passenger was wounded is typical of the attacks taking place daily on roads which pass Arab villages in the Galilee. It's probably safer than the Jericho route, but who wants to take the risk for a weekend away? These two trouble spots have pretty much cut Israel in two from north to south.
Of course, with Israelis getting killed and injured almost every day, and many more living under siege or constant gunfire, our concern about a weekend away is trifling. The point is that even for many of us who aren't living right on the `front line', the intifada is still part of our daily lives, so that taking a weekend drive becomes a weighty decision.
In better times many of you commented that your favourite parts of my letters were my descriptions of our weekends away around Israel, or our Friday morning hiking trips to the Dead Sea and other scenic areas. One of our greatest delights is to just pick a spot on the map and spend a Friday morning or Thursday evening exploring our small, but wonderfully diverse country, learning every little country road, every hill, every flower, every bird, every biblical landmark, each archeological site. There is a reason my letters have turned from fun descriptions of hikes around the country to lists of attacks. This is, tragically, the new reality in which we live. If only it were otherwise. Despite it all, yes, we still take some trips, but we're very careful about where we go - we don't just wander freely anymore.
One of my pastimes lately, and not a pleasant one, is listening to the radio in time for almost every hourly newscast. After Israelis were killed almost every day last week, things `quietened' down a bit for a few days. That means Palestinian shooting and rock throwing continue, as does the detonating of roadside bombs, but that mercifully there have been far lower casualties. In fact there have actually been more attacks over the past few days, with a new intifada `record' set between noon yesterday and today: 57 shooting attacks. However we have now tragically grown so used to this terrible situation that even the Israeli news outlets have become bored of it, devoting a couple of sentences to the day's incidents and then going on with parliamentary politics or world AIDS day - unless of course, God forbid, someone is killed or very seriously injured in one of the day's dozens of attacks.
Continuing attempts to reach a ceasefire have failed. Over the last two weeks Barak and Arafat have spoken by phone, and Israeli cabinet minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak has been to Gaza to meet with Arafat and Palestinian Preventative Security chief Mohammed Dahlan, but to no avail.
On Sunday we buried Ariel Jarafeh and Major Sharon Arameh. Jarafeh, aged 42 and a father of three from Petah Tikva, is the civilian shot dead last Friday when Palestinian gunmen ambushed his car as he passed the Palestinian village of Usarin, near the Jewish village of Migdalim southeast of Shekhem/Nablus. Arameh, 25, from Ashkelon was killed when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on an Israeli army post in Gaza. He leaves behind a 22-year-old widow and their baby son.
Another Israeli soldier, 27-year-old St.Sgt Khalil Taher of `Akko, was killed Sunday morning by a roadside bomb detonated by Lebanese Hizballah guerrillas on the Israeli patrol road, almost a kilometre within Israel's northern border with Lebanon. Two other Israeli soldiers were wounded in the explosion. Hizballah released a statement saying that "The attack is in support of the Palestinian intifada and to inaugurate the holy month of Ramadan, the month of Muslim victories". Taher, a tracker, was leading the patrol and so took the brunt of the blast. He leaves a pregnant wife, Inam, and an 18-month-old son.
Taher's family are Muslim Bedouin who live in the northern Israeli city of `Akko. Though Arabs are not conscripted into the Israeli army, like many other Bedouin the sons of the family volunteered, four serving as trackers and one in the air force. Taher served in the same unit as another Galilee Bedouin, Sgt Omar Suwaid, one of the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped from Israel's northern border by Hizbullah in October. Taher was buried in `Akko's Muslim cemetery. In an interview on the radio this morning Mohammed, Khalil's father, said that since Khalil was killed in action many Muslim neighbours of the Taher family have been boycotting the family, refusing to pay condolence calls and ignoring family members in the street. Mohammed said that he couldn't understand why his Muslim neighbours were friendly to him, knowing that he had six sons serving in the Israeli army, and yet now that Khalil has been killed they are giving him the cold shoulder. He said that the Taher family have also received threatening phone calls from Arabs in `Akko. In addition the imam of `Akko, the senior Muslim religious leader in the town, refused to officiate at the funeral of the soldier, even though as a state employee of the religious affairs ministry he is required to. The religious affairs ministry is investigating the case and considering taking disciplinery measures against the imam.
In response to the Hizballah attack Israel fired missiles at Hizballah bases along the border with Israel. UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping force stationed in South Lebanon which is supposed to keep the peace, once again proved totally ineffective. It has been no more useful in preventing Lebanese citizens from standing by the border fence and throwing rocks, bottles and sometimes firebombs over the fence into Israel. Israeli cabinet minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak commented, "It is doubtful that UNIFIL can prevent such attacks." In past weeks Hizballah and Palestinian gunmen near the border have fired shots into Israel and thrown grenades over the border.
Last Friday night an attack came from yet another direction when an armed Palestinian terrorist infiltrated Israel from Jordan. He was discovered and caught near the Jordan Valley village of Argaman. There have also been several attempted infiltrations into Israel from Palestinian-controlled areas, especially from Palestinian-controlled Gaza into the nearby Israeli agricultural communities. Fortunately Israeli patrols have succeeded in preventing such infiltrations. Several Palestinian gunmen, including members of the Palestinian security forces, were killed and injured this week in battles along the Gaza perimeter fence while trying to infiltrate into Israel.
Israelis soldiers and civilians continue to be wounded on a regular basis by Palestinian ambushes on Israeli roads bordering Palestinian-controlled areas. On Wednesday, an Israeli civilian, Avraham Alon, 50, of Tapuah, was critically wounded by Palestinian sniper fire as his car passed the Palestinian village of Usarin, almost the exact same spot where Ariel Jarafe was killed in a similar attack last Friday. Palestinian sniper attacks have taken place in many other areas too. Fortunately in most cases the Israelis managed to escape with "only" bullet-damaged cars. In several places in Gaza and the West Bank roadside bombs have been set off by Palestinians as Israeli vehicles pass. In some areas the Israeli army has begun uprooting roadside orchards and plantations which are used by Palestinians as cover for attacks on Israeli vehicles.
Rock throwing continues in many places, both near Palestinian areas, and on roads close to Israeli Arab villages. Several Israelis were injured in the last few days as result. Buses, which are of course large and relatively slow moving, seem to be favourite targets. Israeli ambulances were stoned on Tuesday by Palestinians, this time in Gush Etzion and in northeastern Jerusalem near Atarot. Forty-two Israeli ambulances to be damaged by stone throwing since the intifada began. So far 7 ambulances have been so badly damaged that they are beyond repair; replacements cost $70,000 each.
Last night an Israeli ambulance was firebombed by local Arabs while driving through the Wadi Joz neighbourhood of Jerusalem. The ambulance was en route to the scene of a car accident in the mostly Arab neighbourhood of Ras el Amud, on the Mount of Olives. Palestinian gunfire continues at various Israeli residential areas, as well as at joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial zones which are located in many areas bordering Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Amongst the neighbourhoods targeted in recent days is, once again, Gilo in southern Jerusalem, where several apartments were hit. In one case a bullet ripped into a fridge door just as 13-year-old Liat Eldad was opening it, whizzing over her head and embedding itself in the fridge. She fainted from fright, while her three sisters, also in the kitchen at the time, had hysterics, and her mother was taken to hospital to be treated for shock.
In a gesture of solidarity with the beleaguered neighbourhood, Israeli President Moshe Katzav and his wife spent Tuesday night staying over with a family on Anafa Street, which directly faces the Palestinian-controlled town of Beit Jalla and has been one of the main targets of Palestinian snipers. Likud party Knesset Members Ze'ev Boim and Uzi Landau have moved in to the neighbourhood permanently in a show of support for Gilo residents.
This week was the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and other physical pleasures during the daylight hours, and break their fasts after dark each day with feasts and celebrations. Many Muslims who are not especially devout during the rest of the year are more pious during Ramadan, for example taking more care to attend prayers, and on Fridays the mosques are more crowded than usual.
As a goodwill gesture the Israeli government eased restrictions on Palestinian controlled areas, re-opening border crossings between Israel and Palestinian-controlled Gaza, and restoring the flow of non-humanitarian goods, such as building supplies. Israel has also permitted the Dahaniya airport in Gaza to re-open, as in the last few days the Palestinians have not launched attacks from that area. If the attacks from Dahaniya resume Israel will close the airport once again. We hope that the relaxing of these restrictions will not be used by the Palestinian Authority to smuggle in more weapons and ammunition, the original reason for the blocking the transportation of all but humanitarian supplies into Palestinian-controlled Gaza.
Meanwhile as it became clear this week that the Israeli government has finally lost the confidence of parliament Israel will be holding new elections in a few months time. Polls indicate that prime minister Barak's only chance of reelection is to go into elections having reached a peace agreement. Otherwise the opposition, which has always been sceptical of the Palestinians readiness for real peace with Israel, seem to have the upper hand in the polls. Like many other Israelis, I fear Barak, under election pressures, may rush into a poorly thought out deal with Palestinians leader Yasser Arafat, a deal that could result in making the current situation even worse.
There is so much more to add, but it's already taken me a week to write this and I've had a mild fever this week which I'm sure hasn't eased the task.
As I write this there was just a news flash reporting that a bus was fired upon in northern Jerusalem, the first shooting attack on Israeli vehicles in Jerusalem itself. Palestinian gunmen apparently infiltrated from Palestinian-controlled Ramallah to the Jerusalem Arab neighbourhood of Beit Hanina and fired from there onto the major French Hill junction. The bus, number 178 to Shiloh, was fortunately a bullet proof bus, as there have been several attacks on the road to Shiloh recently. That is what saved the lives of those on board and none were injured, though the unprotected baggage compartment was riddled with bullet holes. Thank God that it wasn't an ordinary Jerusalem bus, which would not have had a reinforced passenger section and bullet proof windows.