As the sun went down on Memorial Day, the national mood shifted from mourning the fallen to celebrating the freedom achieved by their sacrifice. Independence Day festivities took place across the country, from modest concerts in small villages to extravagant events in major cities. There was no sign that the 7 month Palestinian onslaught dampened the celebrations. City centres throughout the country were crowded with reveling Israelis determined to celebrate their pride in their nation.
In Jerusalem, Palestinians opened fire on the suburb of Gilo again that night, damaging 8 apartments, but residents didn't let that get them down. The firework display in the neighbourhood's main park went on as planned. Likewise, the Israeli communities of Gaza, so often under fire recently, kept their spirits up with festivities and firework displays in areas out of range of mortar fire, defying the Palestinian gunmen's attempt at destroying normal life in their communities.
Here in Modi'in, the municipality held its usual lavish celebrations with a show in the central park featuring Israeli pop stars Ayal Golan and Gali Atari, along with performances by local dance troupes. Also as usual Modi'in residents were treated to a spectacular firework display, visible for miles around. Later in the evening we heard and saw fireworks from the neighbouring town of Re'ut. Most of Modi'in's 30,000 residents attended the festivities which were secured by large numbers of police and volunteers from the town's civil guard.
Later that night we went on to a more modest event in the neighbouring town of Makkabim. There, in a lovely park planted with native wildflowers and trees, a large Bedouin-style tent lined with rugs and cushions had been set up near a campfire. Outside, a couple of police vehicles and several officers guarded the site, which is just across a small valley from the neighbouring Palestinian village of Beit Sira. Inside the tent, a group of musicians played old Israeli folk songs from fifty years ago, and a veteran of the War of Independence told humourous stories from the early days of the state. We sat squeezed in the crowded tent, sitting on the ground and on cushions, enjoying coffee and roast potatoes fresh from the fire and singing along enthusiastically with the band. We sang songs about the difficult early days in the late 1940s, about Israel's longing for peace, about our determination to survive despite our neighbours' belligerence.
As we celebrated independence by singing of our hopes for peace, we watched the yellow lights of the Makkabim patrol jeep a few hundred metres away as it patrolled the perimeter fence towards Beit Sira, whose lights twinkled just beyond. A few months ago its residents had stoned Israeli vehicles on the nearby road, injuring several, until the Israeli army sealed off the road to through traffic. Beit Sira youths had hung burning tires on Makkabim the perimeter fence, and yelled threats at the Jewish town's residents. Yet none of this was apparent as we sat singing Hebrew peace songs late into the chilly night. 'I was born for peace, may it only arrive,' we sang, as if the song itself could quell the war. Just as Israelis have done for 53 years now, we continued to sing and dream of peace, even as those with whom we seek peace make war against us.
Thursday, Israel's fifty-third Independence Day, we took the bus to Eli, a small Israeli town halfway between Jerusalem and Nablus/Shekhem. We had been invited to visit by friends who live there. It was our first visit to a Jewish community in the West Bank since the terror war began. The last time we visited, just under a year ago, we took the car, even taking a shortcut through a Palestinian town, Bir Naballah, whose shops sported Hebrew signs for their many Israeli customers. In recent months this village has been used by Palestinian snipers to attack the neighbouring Atarot industrial zone in northern Jerusalem. This year we left the car in Jerusalem and boarded a bulletproof bus for Eli, just to be on the safe side. When we reached the Ramallah bypass road near an army checkpoint, our bus was joined by an army jeep escort. The roads were pretty quiet, though, with little traffic and no incidents.
Once in Eli we were actually surprised by the absence of visible security measures. The outskirts of the hilltop town were patrolled frequently, with incoming traffic stopped at the entrance, but once inside the atmosphere was relaxed and festive. A bouncy castle and other attractions had been set up in the town's basketball court, which was crowded with children and parents. On a small cliff nearby teenagers were learning rockclimbing. A loudspeaker blared out a mixture of Israeli folk songs, pop songs and Hassidic rock. In addition to local residents there were many visitors from other parts of the country.
As we sat down to a festive Independence Day lunch on our friends' porch the air was thick with the smell of barbecues and all along the road we could see neighbours sitting down to their own dinners. Friends from Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, had also been invited. Conversation around the table quickly turned to the security situation on roads near our communities. Although all of those around the table came from parts of the country whose access roads had come under attack in recent months, everyone agreed that for the most part they were living life as usual. Some took extra precautions, such as avoiding driving after dark, or pairing up with at least one other car to avoid being alone on the road. Despite the tension, they weren't going to be intimidated into staying off the roads. After all, somebody commented, many more people are hurt in traffic accidents than in terror attacks.
Apparently, the strict security measures paid off. There was only one shooting on Independence Day itself, a Palestinian attack on an Israeli army post in Gaza. It was the quietest day we've known for a long time. However, such a tight closure on Palestinian areas can't be maintained for long, and Israel's policy is to minimise the pressure on Palestinian civilians, so by Friday most of the restrictions had been relaxed. Like the civilians, the terrorists were also free to travel again. Israelis soon felt the difference.
When we turned on the news last night after Shabbat we discovered that the week ended as it had begun, with a series of serious attacks, and at least one more Israeli murdered and several more wounded, bringing this week's Israeli death toll to at least three, with scores injured. This week three bombs went off in Israeli cities (Kfar Saba, Haifa and Or Yehuda), killing one. Another Israeli was murdered after taking a wrong turn into a Palestinian area near Ramallah. On Saturday five Israeli teenagers were wounded when a mortar bomb landed on a community centre in the Israeli Gaza village of Netzer Hazani, this after a bomb exploded there on Friday, wounding two Israelis. On the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway a Palestinian stabbed and wounded a fellow passenger in a service taxi. The attacker was overpowered by other passengers saving the life of his victim. Last night a man was murdered and four passengers wounded in a drive-by shooting at a busy junction on Route 65 near the Israeli Arab town of Umm El Fahm in the southern Galilee. Many of these incidents could have ended far worse, I lose count of the number of times the word miracle has been used this week.
This morning we awoke to another round of Palestinian terror. A car bomb was detonated next to a schoolbus near Shavei Shomron, west of Shekhem/Nablus. A bomb exploded in the town of Sha'arei Tikva, east of Petah Tikva. A bomb was discovered in the seaside resort town of Netanya, exploding just after police had cleared the area and were preparing to defuse the device. Miraculously no one was hurt, save for a few women who were treated for shock. Palestinian gunmen fired mortar bombs at the Jewish village of Kfar Darom in Gaza. Another week and its bombs.
The latest word is that our leaders are once again trying to negotiate a ceasefire with the assistance of Jordan and Egypt. We can't help but be sceptical. We can't help but hope as well though.