Monday, February 12, 2001

Ballot boxes, bombs and bullets

Tuesday, February 6, 2001

Tuesday was of course election day in Israel, which in Israel is a national holiday. We live right next to our polling booth, so we voted early and then went south for the day to take a break from the elections. We weren't the only ones with that idea. We saw many families out for the day in the national parks, though the most crowded place was the shopping mall in Be'er Sheva where we stopped for dinner on the way home.
We explored the northwest Negev region, an agricultural area of plains and gentle rolling hills on the edge of the desert. It was an unseasonably warm winter day, the sun was bright, the wildflowers created carpets of yellow, mauve, white and red and the air was filled with birdsong. Many birds of prey winter in the fields in this area and we saw many soaring over the roads or perched on trees by the road. Fields of sunflowers and grains lined the route, as well as - believe it or not - several ostrich farms. Not far from the road we passed the Nahal Besor stream and relaxed to the gentle tinkling of the water rushing over the rocky stream bed.
Yet to the west of this region is the battleground of Gaza, where the Jewish communities are under constant attack and only the day before an Israeli soldier on patrol was killed by a Palestinian sniper. Only a mere 20 kilometres away in the Eshkol-Nahal Besor national park all was blissfully peaceful, save for the odd military helicopter flying overhead. It was hard to believe that we were so close to Gaza, hard to believe that had we continued a few kilometres further we would have reached army road blocks and armoured convoys. It really brought home how localised the violence is. The Israeli communities of Gaza are the buffer zone bearing the brunt of Palestinian attacks, protecting the north-west Negev from Palestinian terror.
From the fields and dunes of the Nahal Besor region we continued south and east into the real Negev desert, a land of rocky cliffs and barren landscapes. Even here though the winter rains have brought some colour, patches of wildflowers and greenery in the wadis and ditches by the road, wherever the runoff from the rains has settled. Along the road we noticed the occasional Bedouin encampment, shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats and once a herd of semi-wild camels foraging in the middle of nowhere with no human settlement in sight.
One of the loveliest places in this region is Ein Avdat, a dramatic canyon with a spring fed stream flowing along its floor. The hike along the canyon floor is easy, and we had a leisurely wander along the trail, accompanied by the calming rushing of the water, the song of the birds perched in the waterside vegetation and the cooing of the doves nestled along the rocky ledges high above us. From time to time a huge Griffon vulture soared over the canyon, one of the largest birds of prey in the region.
There were a few other people around, but the site wasn't crowded. By late afternoon we were taking it easy, relaxing by the stream and watching the ibex wild goats clatter down the rocky cliffside for an evening drink. The fateful elections were a world away.
We arrived home at 7pm, three hours before the polls were to close. There was nothing on television but meaningless reports about voter turnout and commentary on post-election scenarios. An hour before voting ended, Channel 2 thankfully tried to help ease the tension with an election-special game show. Animated Sharon and Barak characters appeared on the screen to tell contestants whether their answers were right or wrong.
Then at 10pm the nation held its breath as the first exit polls were released. There were few surprises. As the polls have been indicating for weeks, Ariel Sharon, was elected prime minister by the largest landslide in Israeli history with the exit polls indicating a win of about 59% to 40%. By the following morning with 99% of the vote counted Sharon's success was confirmed: 62.6% to 37.4%.
It would be hard to imagine a more decisive repudiation for prime minister Ehud Barak. Amazing that only in May 1999 his election was greeted by so many Israelis with such optimism, even euphoria. He really seemed to offer the consensus, centrist government that so many Israelis yearned for. Today there is hardly anybody who will say a good word about him. How the mighty have fallen.

Thursday, February 8, 2001

Every time you think that maybe, just maybe, things are calming down a bit, the Palestinians do something to shatter any remnant of hope that maybe, just maybe, they really might decide to honour one of the numerous ceasefire agreements they've committed to in recent months. I know, perhaps my letters are predictable, always a lull before some kind of storm, but I can only tell it the way it is, and sadly that is the way it is.
I had a free afternoon on Thursday because a girl I'm tutoring cancelled on me. I took the opportunity to do something I've wanted to do for a long time - accompany a local naturalist and birder to a rural area just behind Modi'in and observe the wildlife there. I have always loved nature, especially birds. In these crazy times I find it comforting to be out watching the birds, it helps me to take my mind off the more pressing problems of the day.
It was a productive afternoon with my guide showing me several species I'd never seen before. As twilight approached a pair of owls began calling to each other across the valley, and soon their cries were joined by the howling and cackling of jackals from the other side of the hill. As we were scanning the horizon with our binoculars, hoping to catch sight of the jackals my friend's mobile phone rang. I heard him say "A pigu'a (terror attack)? Where? How many hurt?" My heart sank. Not again. The phone conversation ended and he turned to me "Do you have family in Jerusalem?" I hovered somewhere between panic and alarming calm. Panic because I have a lot of family and friends in the city, not to mention plenty who work there even if they live elsewhere. Calm, because sadly such news has become so routine that I no longer have the strength to panic for long.
We heard more jackals, but didn't see any this time. I arrived home half an hour later and switched on the TV. Channel 1 was on a basketball game and Channel 2 had a celebrity documentary about supermodels. Nothing to watch on TV, that meant that the terror attack wasn't too serious, otherwise both stations would be on special news bulletins.
When the news finally came on at 7:30pm it became clear that thank God, we have merited another miracle in the midst of this tragic situation. The car bomb was planted in a side street at the edge of the Hareidi (very traditional orthodox) Meah She'arim neighbourhood near central Jerusalem. A witness, still pale with shock, noted that only minutes before the blast a truck laden with gas canisters had driven right past the bombers' car. Had God forbid the bomb gone off as the truck passed one shudders to think of the terrible outcome.
Close to the scene of the blast is a charity centre which distributes food to the needy of Jerusalem every Thursday afternoon at 5:30pm, ensuring that the poor have meals for Shabbat. The bomb went off about 15 minutes earlier, and had the blast occurred at a 5:30, Heaven forbid, we would be looking at a far higher and more serious casualty toll. There is speculation that this centre, crowded with people, was the terrorists' target. This evening locals were celebrating the miracle. The news showed hundreds of Hassidim dancing and singing, thanking God for saving their neighbourhood.

Sunday, February 11, 2001

Our Palestinian peace partners still apparently need to have the word peace explained to them. Over the last few days there has been a steady upsurge in attacks, just as they promised us there would be, to celebrate the Israeli elections. At least they keep their word on something even if they ignore the peace agreements. There has been a marked increase in shootings, bombings and stonings. I'm not going to mention every incident here, I can't, there have been scores in recent days alone.
The Bethlehem region in particular has been heating up. Tonight 35-year-old Tzahi Sasson was murdered while driving home from work in Jerusalem to the village of Rosh Tzurim. Sasson was hit in the head by Palestinian gunfire while he was driving on the highway bridge linking southern Jerusalem with Gush Etzion. At first he was seriously wounded, and Israeli soldiers and ambulance crews struggled to rescue him under continuous fire from Palestinian controlled Bethlehem. By the time the wounded civilian was extricated and evacuated to hospital it was too late.
Just a short while ago we sat in horror watching the desperate attempts to rescue the wounded civilian with the soldiers crouching low behind the bridge railings to avoid becoming targets for the Palestinians, using armoured military vehicles to shield the ambulance from snipers. Once again I sat in my living room and watched a familiar road become a war zone. Only a year ago we took that road to Efrat to attend my cousin's Bar Mitzvah. I remember sitting by the bus window and looking towards the mosque minarets and occasional churches which dot the Bethlehem skyline. Now that bus journey seems a whole lifetime away.
Palestinian gunmen in Bethlehem have been firing on and off at Rachel's Tomb for almost a day now. This evening they resumed shooting at the southern Jerusalem neighbourhood of Gilo. The living room of 90 year-old Tzila Stricker was hit by Palestinian gunfire. She and her carer narrowly escaped injury. Tonight she said they'll be sleeping in her windowless hallway just to be on the safe side.
Earlier today an Israeli soldier was wounded when Palestinians opened fire on the Israeli-Palestinian coordinating office in Bethlehem. The office is supposed to facilitate cooperation between the two sides on security and humanitarian matters, but all too often the Palestinians have attacked it instead. Over Shabbat the Giv'at Hadagan neighbourhood of Efrat, south of Jerusalem, was also subjected to Palestinian fire from the Bethlehem area.
The Jews of Gaza have also been having it tough. The Gaza region has been a constant focus for Palestinian violence, even when other sectors have calmed down a bit. Today a mortar shell was fired at the Israeli village of Netzarim for the second time in two weeks. Luckily it fell in an open patch of ground, and not, as last time, on someone's house. Residents were instructed to spent the night in bomb shelters. Roadside bombs and ambushes are daily occurrences in Gaza, with several Israelis wounded in recent days and a number of miraculous near misses.
The besieged residents of Netzarim are holding firm though, despite the constant shooting, despite being able to travel to and from their homes only in armoured convoys. Imagine living like that for months now, going to work and school with the ever present threat that you or your spouse or your children will not make it home in one piece - if at all. One Netzarim resident put it like this: we're protecting Israel's border so we have to remain strong.
In the lower Galilee region of northern Israel, some Israeli Arabs have once again joined in the fun, throwing rocks at passing Jewish motorists driving along the Wadi `Ara road, a major east-west artery. At least one Jewish driver was lightly injured by a rock thrown at his car.
Hard to think that all this is less than a week's worth of news. How we long for calmer days.