Thursday, March 22, 2001

Another crazy day in Israel - Jerusalem miracle

Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Last night we went out to dinner at a lovely little Hungarian restaurant in Tel Aviv to celebrate Jason's birthday. The restaurant was cosy and crowded. In the warm, heimish atmosphere it was possible to forget that the security situation here is one of the worst in Israel's history. It was so relaxing to spend an evening without listening to the radio. On the drive home the we discussed Pesah holiday plans and enjoyed the delicious night time fragrance of jasmine that wafts over a large section of the Tel-Aviv-Modi'in highway during the spring. Save for the extra police patrols, all seemed peaceful, just as it was half a year ago.
This morning we went into Jerusalem to take care of some errands at the bank. We left the house too early to have time for breakfast so we had brunch at a cafe where I had arranged for a surprise birthday cake for Jason. He then went off to work, but I had some more errands to do in Jerusalem so I spent most of the day there, later meeting a friend for coffee and picking out a lovely new hat for Pesah. Tired, schlepping assorted packages, I headed for the nearest bus stop to return to Modi'in.
As I walked along it dawned on me that a helicopter kept passing overhead, backwards and forwards over the centre of town. Even by current standards, there seemed to be a lot of police and security vehicles around. Something was definitely up. I reached my bus stop with several minutes to spare. It was an unusually hot March day and I was parched so I popped into a kiosk to get some water. While waiting to pay I overheard another customer telling the shop keeper that he'd just come from the Meah She'arim neighbourhood and that the street he needed to get to was closed due to a suspect car bomb. I was a few minutes walk from Meah She'arim, right on the edge of the neighbourhood.
I didn't panic though. No, not because I'm so brave, but because false alarms are common. Each abandoned car, every bag someone dumps or loses, each box of rubbish - all are suspicious objects and the police take any possible bomb seriously. Only two months earlier I nearly missed my bus while waiting at that same stop because police suddenly came across a suspect package in the same area, closed off the street and told everyone to leave. In the end that suspect bomb had thank God been a false alarm.
The news meant that the bus would be delayed, traffic would be bad and who knew how long I'd have to wait in the hot sun with all my packages. The bus stop was filling up rapidly with people waiting for buses which could not get through because of the nearby road closures or the subsequent traffic jams.
The Modi'in bus was coming from a part of town relatively unaffected by the closures. The continuation of the route was however directly through the crowded narrow streets of Meah She'arim, "Shabbat Square" and the Bukharan Quarter. That entire area was closed off by the police, and all its traffic and pedestrians had been pushed out into the bustling and congested streets of central Jerusalem. As you can imagine it was pretty chaotic, traffic was moving at a snail's pace, if at all, while pedestrians, cars and even buses were weaving in and out trying to find alternate routes. It was a long and tense ride home that afternoon.
By the time I arrived home I had missed the early evening news and it was only at 7.30pm that I heard the whole story. This afternoon it wasn't a false alarm. The car bomb was very real and very large. Only by a miracle had a terrible tragedy been averted. A passerby noticed an illegally parked car which was blocking traffic and called a municipal parking inspector to do something about it. The inspector became suspicious when he noticed that the car was beautifully new, so nice and new that no one in their right mind would risk parking it like that on a narrow crowded street. Something seemed wrong. He checked the licence plate number and sure enough, the car was stolen. Fearing that it was a bomb he rushed to clear the area, warning people to run away. Police then carried out a controlled explosion. For the third time in recent months the people of Meah She'arim were miraculously saved from a Palestinian terrorist's bomb.
How chilling to discover that this afternoon I and thousands of other civilians going about their daily business had been within a kilometre radius of a large car bomb. What a debt we owe to the vigilance of that municipal parking inspector.
Another crazy day in Israel. Another Palestinian terror attack added to the growing list. Thank God this one had a happy ending.

Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Musing on the strangeness of American "normalcy"

Tuesday, March 20, 2001

I know I haven't written for a while. We've just returned from visiting Jason's family in the US. To put it mildly, being outside of Israel felt rather odd. It wasn't just the superficial differences of foreign landscapes, different weather and a different language. No, it was the different atmosphere, the lack of tension, no one tuning into the news obsessively every hour. Even when we did tune in to the radio the news was relatively staid compared with what we often have at home.
Things felt more relaxed abroad, but then I guess they would be in countries whose right to exist is not constantly questioned. Overall, being in the US, and briefly on stopover in London, made us realise how what passes for normality in Israel is not necessarily that normal. No, as I have said many times before, most of Israel is not the war zone you see on TV. In Israel as well, we consider war zones not to be normal. No, it is the parts of life which we think of as normal, as just like any other country, such as going to the movies, visiting a shopping mall or taking a bus, which after visiting the US seem less routine.
On our first day in America, on the way to visit Jason's grandparents, we stopped at a bookstore in a large shopping mall in the hopes of finding an Israeli newspaper - Israelis are by necessity obsessed with the news. We drove into the parking lot, found a parking space near the bookshop entrance and parked the car. As Jason turned off the engine we suddenly realised that no one had stopped us at the entrance. There had been no line of cars stretching into the main road waiting for a security guard to check them. No one had asked us our name, taken down our licence plate number or inspected the trunk of the car for weapons or other suspicious objects. We had just driven right in and parked. Weird. Due to the threat of terror in Israel you can't do that.
As is often the case, I was schlepping a backpack with my camera, binoculars and a local bird guidebook, just on the offchance that we might see something interesting. As we neared the entrance I kicked myself for having taken along my bag. I hate going to shopping malls, cinemas or department stores with a bag of any sort, but especially not a big bag or one with lots of compartments. It's such a hassle to open it for the guard at the door to inspect. It felt strange to walk right in to the mall carrying whatever we wanted. No one checked to see what was in my bag or whether my camera was in fact a camera or a bomb, or whether Jason was carrying a concealed weapon. No security guard whatsoever. How odd. I didn't see any police or soldiers in the mall at all.
In fact we hardly saw any police or soldiers during our entire visit, save for the odd patrol car on the road or some marines at a shopping centre near a base. In Israel uniforms are so common that you don't even notice. The security situation and the country's small population require everyone to serve in the army or do other forms of national service, so it's common to see young people in uniform. Many men also do up to a month's reserve duty a year, so it isn't odd to see your neighbour don his uniform once or twice a year, even if usually he works as a mechanic, rabbi, chef or stockbroker. We often see men or women in uniform just doing their groceries or picking the kids up from school.
With the current security problems it is also common to see border guard or police patrols in towns and cities, shopping malls, popular places of entertainment and even sometimes at roadblocks at the entrance to town. The lack of visible security measures in the US was palpable. Of course this isn't to say that the US doesn't have security problems of its own. Every big cities has neighbourhoods you wouldn't want to get lost in, and unlike in Israel, there are no police roadblocks to stop you from accidentally driving into them. Of course the locals know where it's safe, and plan their routes accordingly, just like people do here. Each country and its own risks I suppose.
In fact the only major security presence that I noted was during our stopover in London's Heathrow airport where we had to change planes. There was a posse of British police in flak jackets, carrying wicked looking machine guns, who surrounded the passengers waiting to check in at the El Al desk. No other airline had a similar security presence. I assume that they were there to deter potential attackers, but I and other passengers I chatted to found the way they stood over us very intimidating, as though we were the potential threat to peaceful Britain rather than potential targets. It almost felt as though they were trying to corral us. Security is tight in Israel, but somehow it doesn't usually feel that cumbersome or oppressive.
No offense to our American friends and relatives, but listening to American radio was quite bizarre. Stories about whether there would be another winter blizzard, the new Bush administration's tax plans, Clinton's shenanigans or racing car drivers - if only those were the lead stories here. In general we found the tone and style of US news reports to be more relaxed, sometimes almost lethargic or folksy. They lacked the urgency of Israeli news broadcasts, where every update seems to bring a new crisis. So entrenched is the feeling of living on the edge that even relatively trivial stories are reported with melodramatic overtones.
We arrived home Purim eve. This time of year is a favourite of Jews around the world, especially kids, who look forward to the boisterous Purim holiday. This year should have marked an extra special Purim as Israelis marked the tenth anniversary of the end of the Persian Gulf War. While that war was of course actually fought in the Persian Gulf, about 1000 miles from here, Saddam Hussein used it as an excuse to lob Scud missiles at Israel, mostly at the Tel Aviv area, and Israelis spent the war with the ever present fear that he was going to arm those Scuds with poison gas. The war ended on Purim, and the festival became the first day in months that Israelis were free to go about their lives as usual without schlepping gas masks with them or listening out for air raid sirens.
On Purim eve this year, as the rest of Israel was in the middle of or en route to readings of Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther, in synagogues across the country, the residents of Netzarim, a Jewish village in Gaza, were rushing to their bomb shelters because neighbouring Palestinians were shelling them. Thank God, no one was hurt. As the Jews of Gaza have been under attack for 6 months now, the event got little coverage. Purim morning, as I was preparing mishloah manot, the traditional Purim food gifts, to deliver to family and friends, a resident of Netzarim was being interviewed on the radio about how he was going to be spending the festival. He described how after two mortar shells landed in the village residents hurried to their shelters, bringing with them food for the Purim banquet and megillat Esther scrolls. A few families gathered with his in a neighbourhood shelter. One man had thought to grab his accordion, and he played Purim songs to keep their spirits up. The resident being interviewed said that as they read the Purim story from the book of Esther they had faith that just as the Jews of ancient Persia were saved from Haman's evil decree, so they would be saved from their enemies. What a way to spend what should be one of the most joyous festivals of the Jewish year.
Thankfully Purim in most other parts of Israel passed peacefully. Israel's tight security measures succeeded in preventing terror attacks. Most towns held their annual Purim fancy dress parades as usual, though with stepped up security. With the festival falling on Friday in most of Israel, and on Sunday in Jerusalem and other towns with ancient walled centres, Purim was rare long weekend in Israel this year.
The tighter security measures included a strict closure around Palestinian controlled territory in the Ramallah area north of Jerusalem. Ramallah and surrounding Palestinian villages are the principal base for many Palestinian Authority militias and terror cells carrying out attacks on Israelis in the Jerusalem area. In order to prevent the terrorists from reaching Israeli areas the Israeli army created a tight cordon of roadblocks on roads in the region, isolating Ramallah from surrounding Palestinian villages and towns - and from Jerusalem.
Contrary to reports on CBS or the BBC et al the closure was not an attempt at "collective punishment", but rather a means for curbing Palestinians attacks on Israelis. As an Israeli army spokesman put it, better that the Palestinian gunmen target army roadblocks than Israeli civilians. These towns and villages were not under siege, but movement in and out was limited to a few main entrances and exits with every vehicle checked scrupulously. Food and other humanitarian supplies were allowed in. The operation has proved quite successful so far, with Israel capturing several terrorists and so preventing a planned bombing in Jerusalem. I've noticed that the foreign media seems to be ignoring these aspects, focussing only on what they see as the harsh restrictions on Palestinian movement in the region.
Israelis do not relish imposing such restrictions on civilian Palestinians, but we relish even less being shot at and bombed by Palestinian terrorists. Under the circumstances the closure and restrictions seem to be the most effective way of preventing terrorists from infiltrating into Israel. In fact hours after the closure was lifted in Bethlehem Palestinian gunmen ambushed and murdered an Israeli driver on his way to work from Efrat to Jerusalem. They then escaped to Palestinian controlled Bethlehem with no Israeli checkpoints in their way.
No doubt ordinary Palestinian civilians are suffering, but it is the Palestinians who have instigated this war and continue to besiege Israeli communities by terrorising their roads with snipers and booby traps. Whenever the roads are open to Palestinian traffic, terror cells take the opportunity to ambush Israeli traffic. They do this with the support and assistance of their pseudo government and with the sympathy of a large majority of the civilian population as repeated Palestinian opinion polls have indicated. So long as the Palestinians continue to attack Israelis on the road, snipe at Israeli communities and plant bombs in Israeli towns, why should Israel feel any obligation, legal or moral, to open these roads to them or grant them work permits? If they are suffering they should complain to their leadership for destroying the peace process and starting an unnecessary war that has cost us all dearly. It seems they wish to achieve their goals through warfare without suffering the consequences.
Nissan, the Hebrew month in which the Pesah festival falls, begins this Sunday. I never imagined that when the Palestinian assault began just before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, nearly six months ago, that I would be preparing for Pesah in its shadow.
Wishing you all hodesh tov, a good month.