Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Lights in the sky

Sunday, August 26, 2001

Dear family and friends,
The sky last night looked like something straight out of the X-Files. Five eerie orange lights hung in the sky as though suspended on invisible lampposts. They were way too bright and too large to be stars or planets, easily outshining the many constellations in the clear summer skies. Driving along a rural road toward the brightly illuminated Lod industrial zone, which on any night looks like the set of a sci-fi movie, the strange lights in the sky created a surreal atmosphere.
Then it struck me what the strange glowing balls looked like. Flares. Military flares.
At first they seemed to hang in place. Then a couple of them started drifting downwards and two new lights shot up into the sky to take their place.
Definitely flares. Flares floating just east and north of Modi'in and Makkabim. Of course.
We remembered why we were out driving through the countryside in the first place. It helps relieve the tension and heartache of an especially bad news day. And last Saturday was a very bad news day.
The motzei Shabbat news roundup brought news of the Palestinian attack on an Israeli army base in Gaza in which three soldiers were killed and several more wounded.
Later a news flash reported another shooting on route 443, the Modi'in-Jerusalem highway. A family - two parents, their baby girls and the mother's brother - were ambushed by Palestinian snipers near a gas station, less than ten minutes from Modi'in. The parents were killed, the brother mortally wounded and the babies escaped with light injuries.
I know that I shouldn't be shocked anymore, death has come to so many familiar places, but this brutal multiple murder so close to home hit extra hard, just because it was so close to home, just because all of us who travel to Jerusalem know that road so well, just because it was yet another Israeli family wiped out by Palestinian terror, both parents murdered before their childrens' eyes. This evening, Sunday, the mother's brother died of his wounds. Ironically the family's name is Ben-Shalom - son of peace.
You might think that Israelis should be immune by now, after all this has gone on for nearly a year, but the only way to become immune to such things is by losing one's soul, one's very humanity. Thank God we are not immune, we are still stunned by each attack, each time another life is lost, another person is maimed.
Somehow driving through the tranquil fields to the south of us soothes the nerves and reminds us of that rugged old Israel, the kibbutzim and moshavim of 50 years ago, the rural landscapes of the early days of the modern state of Israel, the land of fireside singalongs, pioneering agriculture turning the barren hills green and a simpler, more austere way of life. The people of that old Israel endured far worse than we have, even during the past 11 months.
In the early years of the state there were shortages, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees to be resettled, Arab armies threatening from all sides and Jewish communities, including Jerusalem, struggling for survival under Arab siege. A drive through some of these historic areas to the south of us is a lesson in history, a reminder that we have faced far worse and survived, battered and bruised, but nevertheless mostly intact.
Lord knows this Saturday night we felt battered and bruised. The flares in the distance were there to illuminate the scene of the shooting while the army attempted to track down the terrorists.Turning towards home we found ourselves driving towards the flares. They were right over the Jerusalem-Modi'in highway, near the Palestinian village of Beit Ur A Tahta.

Monday, August 27, 2001

Unfortunately the terrorists got away, probably escaping to the nearby Palestinian controlled city of Ramallah, a major base for terrorist operations throughout the greater Jerusalem region. The gunmen struck again tonight, opening fire on the Jewish village of Beit Horon, situated on route 443, halfway between Modi'in and the Jerusalem suburb of Giv'at Ze-ev.
In response to the renewed attack on the road Israeli security forces have once again increased their presence along the road. Tanks have returned to several strategic hilltops, patrols have been increased and abandoned watchtowers restored. Exactly as happened after the first fatal shooting on the road last December.
Still, it is going to take a long time to restore public confidence in the security of this route. By the light of day many local residents still drive on route 443, not only because it is a straight, modern road and the fastest route to Jerusalem, but also as a matter of principle, a refusal to give in to intimidation. However only a brave few dare to drive it after dark. While we in the Modi'in area have alternate routes, residents of Jewish towns along the road, such as Beit Horon and Giv'at Ze-ev have no choice - after dark they must either risk the road or be cut off.
God willing next letter I'll be able to write about the more cheerful events of the summer.

Thursday, August 23, 2001

Close to home

Wednesday, August 22, 2001

We were up late last night. I was engrossed working on an old skirt I was repairing and Jason was relaxing in an armchair in front of the TV, enjoying the cool breeze blowing in from the open balcony door. A typical lazy summer evening at home. Our evening's excitement had been our trusty fan which for no apparent reason started to burn - Jason saw flames licking around the motor and unplugged it just in time.
The day's big news had been a large car bomb on Horaknos Street in central Jerusalem which thank God failed to explode. A smaller bomb next to it, apparently meant to trigger the larger device, did go off, and this is what alerted police to the main bomb, 10 kilograms of explosives hidden in the trunk of a car and packed with nails, bits of metal and a few mortar shells. It took police 7 hours to defuse the bomb, during which time the surrounding streets were closed. If the bomb had gone off on the busy street, close to several popular cafes and police headquarters, we'd be counting the death toll now, making the round of anxious phone calls - you know the drill by now.
The midnight news brought more reports of close calls. Tonight there were two shootings in the Modi'in area. One was a few kilometres north of us, on a road which connects the town of Kiryat Sefer to several villages to the north and east. There have been several attacks on this road recently, and only a few weeks ago a family we know from one of those villages was shot and wounded nearby.
The other shooting was even closer to home, on the Jerusalem-Modi'in road, this time at Makkabim Junction, roughly 5 minutes drive from my apartment. Thank God the man whose car was shot up escaped physically unhurt. His car was damaged, his nerves jangled, but otherwise he's fine.
This is the first shooting near the Modi'in end of the highway since January. There have been one or two stonings, but the road has been pretty quiet for months now, ever since the Israeli army caught the terror cell responsible for attacks in the area. Ever since the army moved tanks into position on embankments dominating the highway, added several new lookout posts at other strategic vantage points along the road, and blocked the access roads from local Palestinian villages to the highway to make it harder for terrorists to mount attacks on this shared road.
In recent months the quiet in this area has perhaps lulled us into the belief that maybe in our little corner life really had returned to normal. Many people have gone back to driving on the road as usual, even after dark. Palestinian fruit sellers from neighbouring villages set up their stalls along the highway as they do every summer, selling prickly pears, grapes and figs from their orchards.
Over the summer I've noticed that many of the new Israeli lookouts have been removed. First the tanks disappeared. Then some of the guard towers were no longer manned, consisting simply of an Israeli flag on a cliff top. I understand that the army is stretched at the moment, and there are many roads far more threatened than ours. Still, it was worrying to see the army downscale their presence here. Finally, with the threat of local terrorism diminished, Palestinian access roads to the highway were re-opened. As this latest shooting indicates, the terrorists are already taking advantage of this.
Saturday night a week ago, just after havdalah, Jason decided that we were going to the movies in honour of my birthday and I confess, also to ease some of the tension of recent weeks. As we parked at the shopping mall in Petah Tikva I noticed a branch of Sbarro's next to the cinema.
Personally I hate their food - we tried them a couple of times and vowed never to eat there again - but somehow, after seeing their big Jerusalem branch blown up by a suicide bomber only a few days earlier I felt like I wanted to give them my business, just because, to show solidarity, just to thumb my nose at the terrorists. In Friday's newspaper Sbarro had a big ad with condolences for the victims and get well wishes for the wounded, concluding with a promise to re-open their Jerusalem branch as soon as possible in defiance of the terrorists. Jason looked at me, obviously thinking the same thing and said "Shall we have a meal at Sbarro?" I wrinkled my nose in disgust. "I know" he responded, "sometimes war makes you want to do the stupidest things..."
I wonder if we'll ever just look at Sbarro as just a chain with mediocre food or whether in our mind's eye we'll always see it as the bombed out branch on the corner of Jaffa Road and King George Street. Last night as we drove into Jerusalem to visit relatives we passed the wreckage of the pizzeria. A crowd of people stood by the boarded up ruins, some lighting candles, some reciting Psalms, others just standing and staring. I think that I know what they were thinking, what many of us have been thinking - that could have been me walking past this corner, crossing the road at this zebra crossing or eating in this restaurant. There but for the grace of God.
In Modi'in we are certainly not about to forget the bombing in a hurry. Among the wounded is Hanna Nachenberg, a young mother from Modi'in. She had gone out for pizza with her two and half year-old daughter Sarah. Sarah escaped the bombing virtually unhurt. Hanna's heart was pierced by a fragment of the bomb and since then she remains comatose in critical condition at a Jerusalem hospital. Her husband David spends his time by her bedside, as do her parents, also residents of Modi'in.
Local people are doing what they can to help the family. Shops at the nearby Modi'in shopping centre are donating food and toys. On the Modi'in e-mail list people are organising a baby sitting roster for little Sarah, the recitation of Psalms and get well prayers, meal arrangements and fundraising to cover the transport costs to and from the hospital. The Modi'in town council has allowed friends and family to appeal for donations at this summer's events in the town's parks. Only yesterday a note went out on the list asking for volunteers to help man the stalls.
Not long after, another message went out on the list, this time raising funds for another local family, the Schijveschuurders from the village of Neriah, just north of the Modi'in bloc. Five members of the family of ten, including both parents, were killed in the Sbarro bombing. Now five orphans are left to be cared for, three young adult sons and two little girls.
Despite it all we're doing our best to keep our spirits up. Long breezy summer evenings are a popular time for outdoor concerts, many of them free. While watering my plants on the balcony tonight I was deafened by loud pop music and cheers coming from the end of summer children's festivities sponsored by the Children's Channel. In the background sirens wailed, part of a civil defense rescue exercise, but they were drowned out by the monster sound system as teeny bopper stars belted out upbeat numbers about making the world a better place full of peace and love.
Just so you don't think we're sitting around moping the whole time, we've also been out and about enjoying the summer events, taking in some free concerts in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Modi'in, an artists' fair in Jerusalem, Tu B'Av celebrations in Shiloh and the Ben Shemen forest and a conference on Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University. Maybe I'll tell you about some of the fun stuff next time. God willing.
Good night/morning,

Friday, August 10, 2001

Black day at Sbarro

Thursday, August 9, 2001

This has been one of the blackest days in Israel for several months now. So far today at least 16 Israelis have been killed and over 130 wounded in three different Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians.
I guess that you've all heard the news about the bomb in Jerusalem. Just to reassure everyone, we're fine, and all the family here is to the best of my knowledge fine. More than 130 wounded are not fine, several of them, even now, hours after the bombing, are still in critical condition, fighting for their lives. Fifteen people are dead, including several children.
What is there left to say on a day like this, a typical hot sunny day in the middle of the school vacations. Mums and dads took their kids out for lunch at the Sbarro pizzeria on the corner of King George St and Yaffo Rd in central Jerusalem. Other people were crossing the busy intersection near the restaurant, right in the heart of Jerusalem. At two o'clock this afternoon, during the busy lunch hour, a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up at the entrance to the crowded pizzeria. Just like that, a flick of the switch in his hand and he turned a quiet summer vacation treat into a hellish nightmare.
What more is there to say. This is who and what we are up against, Palestinian bombers who think they'll go to heaven for blowing up a restaurant full of parents and kids enjoying a special vacation treat.
I was just getting ready to go into Jerusalem when I heard the news. It sounds so trivial now, but on Monday I was in Jerusalem, browsing the end of season sales at the hat shops on King George St and Yaffo Rd. I bought a new hat for Rosh Hashana, the upcoming Jewish New Year and when I got it home I realised that some of the ornamentation had fallen off. I was going to take it back to the store this afternoon to have it fixed. I was aiming for the 1:30pm bus, but I just missed it. My next bus was at 2:30pm. When I heard the news of the bombing just after 2pm I was sorting through my purse, looking for the hat receipt. It is so silly, I know, but I can't stop thinking about it. The hat shop is just across the intersection from the Sbarro pizza place, I walked past it only last Monday. Had I made the 1:30pm I would have arrived at that intersection at around 2pm, give or take a few minutes.
The corner of King George and Yaffo, you can't get much more central Jerusalem than that. Anyone going to downtown Jerusalem passes that corner. All of you who've visited Jerusalem must have passed it at least several times. The pizza shop itself, part of the international Sbarro chain, is popular with religious Jewish visitors especially, tempted by the novelty of a kosher Sbarro restaurant.
As soon as I heard where the bombing occurred my first instinct was to phone all my family and friends in and around Jerusalem. My mind was racing, trying to figure out who to call first, who might have been in the vicinity. It was an almost impossible guess, so many people might just have been out to lunch nearby, shopping in the area during lunch break, taking their kids out - any number of things.
After calling my relatives and immediate friends I realised that there is a limit to the number of people you can call in one day. Several people were out and I couldn't get hold of them. Many cellphones were down with the networks overburdened. Regular phonelines were busy as everyone with friends and relatives in the city anxiously checked on their loved ones. Thank God everyone I spoke to was fine. One cousin had been on her way out to meet friends downtown. One cousin had been a block away, making his way to the restaurant to take his kids out to lunch at Sbarro.
My mind is more at ease, but I'm still worried, there are just so many people who could have been nearby, so many I couldn't reach. The names of the dead are only now being released. The waiting is terrible, the fear tying a knot in your stomach as you hang on to every news broadcast, wanting and yet dreading, to hear when the names of the victims are released, praying that none will be familiar to you. You sit watching the gruesome footage of the wounded being evacuated, then the grim news reports from the hospitals as they interview wounded eye witnesses, hoping against hope that you won't recognise anyone. We have been through this so many times before, but this attack in Jerusalem, in such a central location, is one of the worst for us.
In Ramallah, Hebron, and elsewhere in the Palestinian Authority, and in other Arab countries, people are partying in the streets, clapping, singing and handing out candies as they celebrate the deaths of Israeli civilians, a great victory in their war against Israel. Just as they celebrated after 21 Israeli kids were murdered in the Tel Aviv disco bombing, and when five Israelis were killed in the Netanya shopping mall bombing and when... The first time I saw such celebrations on the TV news I was shocked, now, we already know what to expect.
Not long after today's bombing in Jerusalem there was another attack. A young Israeli was shot and killed by Palestinian gunmen while driving near the Israeli village of Avnei Hefetz, several kilometres east of Netanya. Later this evening another Israeli car was shot at, this time near the entrance to Kibbutz Meirav, near Mt Gilboa in northern Israel. A 19-year-old Israeli woman was killed, and three other teenage girls wounded, one seriously. They were driving home from an evening out in the nearby town of Beit Shean.
I've noticed that the foreign media is reporting this as "the first suicide bombing since the Tel Aviv disco bombing". Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually we've had a lot of attacks since then, over 1000 bombings and shootings. Many Israelis have been killed, many wounded, but they've mostly been murdered one or two at a time, so the foreign media doesn't seem to have noticed.
Despite all these tragedies, all these worlds that have been shattered, we have also known many miracles. Thank God Israel has been able to stop many attacks, sometimes catching suicide bombers en route to bombings, sometimes capturing or killing master bomb makers as they prepare attacks. Sometimes the bomb makers are amateurs or using poor quality explosives and the bombs fail to go off or blows up its makers. Had we not been so lucky today's attack would only have been one of many, rather than the terrible exception, the bomber who got through.
A diary of the major incidents during the last few weeks looks like this:
Friday July 27: A vigilant bus driver found a bomb hidden inside a watermelon on his bus near Jerusalem's Malha shopping mall.
Sunday July 29: This afternoon a car bomb went off in the parking garage of an eight story apartment building in the north Jerusalem suburb of Pisgat Zeev, though fortunately the mechanism malfunctioned and not all of the explosives detonated so the building is still standing.
Monday July 30: A small bomb disguised in a beer can exploded in a supermarket in central Jerusalem. Later an Israeli was stabbed and critically wounded near the Damascus Gate in the Old City. The same day 6 terrorists from Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement blew themselves up in a West Bank village when a bomb they were making exploded prematurely. (They blamed Israel for the explosion.) That afternoon three Israeli border guards were shot and wounded in a drive-by shooting north-east of Netanya. The Palestinian gunmen fled over the border to the nearby Palestinian Authority.
Tuesday July 31: That night five Israeli civilians were wounded in another Palestinian drive by shooting near the Israeli village of Na'aleh, a few kilometres north of Modi'in.
Wednesday August 1: A gardener in a municipal Jerusalem park found a pipe lying in the grass, opened it, saw some powder and tossed it aside - thus unwittingly defusing a bomb.
Thursday August 2: A wary bus driver noticed that an Arab teenager trying to board his bus was carrying a large bag with a wire sticking out of it. When the boy refused to say what was in the bag the driver rushed him, pushing him off the bus and preventing the Palestinian from detonating what turned out to be a huge bomb - even more powerful than the device that killed 21 Israelis in June's Tel Aviv disco bombing. The bus was filled with young Israelis en route to the annual Tzemah "Love and Music" festival by the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel.
Friday August 3: An alert security guard caught a Palestinian woman carrying a large bomb hidden in a packed of detergent who was attempting to enter Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station, the largest in the world. In total this week over fifty mortar shells have been fired at Israeli villages in the Gaza region, wounding three Israeli civilians, including two children, and damaging several homes.
Sunday August 5: Ten Israelis were wounded when a Palestinian gunman opened fire on a busy street outside the Israeli defence ministry in Tel Aviv and across the road from the bustling Azrieli shopping mall. Later that evening Palestinian gunmen opened fire on Israeli civilian vehicles near the Jewish village of Tzufim, east of Kfar Saba, killing a pregnant Israeli woman and seriously wounding her husband and 14-year-old daughter. His parents are friends of my family.
Monday August 6: Israeli security forces caught a Palestinian suicide bomber near Tulkarm, east of Netanya.
Tuesday August 7: An Israeli was murdered near Tzufim, site of Sunday night's shooting. The same day the body of an Israeli businessman was found in Amman, Jordan. A Palestinian terror organisation claimed responsibility. Later that night another Israeli was murdered in a drive-by shooting near the Palestinian controlled city of Nablus/Shekhem
Wednesday August 8: A car laden with explosives en route to an attack in central Israel was stopped by soldiers at a roadblock in the Jordan Valley. Seeing he had been caught the Palestinian terrorist detonated the vehicle, injuring one soldier. Later that day two more Israeli soldiers were wounded when Palestinians detonated a roadside bomb near their jeep close to Nablus/Shekhem.
This is the context for today's bombing. Sometimes it feels like we're living in a computer game where there is always an unexpected threat around the corner and everything you try just leads to another dead end.
The frightening thing is that somehow you almost get used to this terrible way of life, each day bringing more pain and destruction to Israeli families, each day wondering who is next. You live each week one day at a time and then suddenly it's Friday and you sit down and read the weekend papers and the roundup of that week's craziness and it hits you just how many people have been shot or stoned or bombed that week. Your mind reels for a few minutes, and you mourn the dead for a few minutes, and then somehow you get up and get on with your life because that is the only thing you can do, the only way you can go on, the only way to resist the Palestinian terrorists who think that murdering innocents is the fast track to heaven, that a man who blows up restaurants and shopping malls is a hero and that the deaths of civilian men, women and children are cause for celebration.
As a currently popular song by Israeli rockstar Yehuda Poliker puts it (my rough translation):
"That's the way our life has been of late,
It could be better, a disaster might strike.
Good evening despair, good night hope.
Who is next, and who is next in line..."
Shabbat shalom,