Tonight Palestinian terrorists struck again on our road to Jerusalem. How many times have I written that over the past year?
At about 8 o'clock this evening gunmen opened fire on an Israeli car turning into the gas station at Giv'at Ze'ev, a dormitory suburb just north-west of Jerusalem, on the main Modi'in-Jerusalem road. Yoela Hen, 46, was killed, and her passenger, her aunt Rahel Eini, 70, was seriously wounded. They were en route to a family wedding. The terrorists were from Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization.
The letter I'm writing now was meant to be very different. It was going to be about the recital I attended on Sunday. I went to see a close friend from Modi'in, a dance student, perform with her class at their end of semester show at Jerusalem's prestigious Rubin Academy of Dance and Music. On the way home we joked about a forlorn, dirty, piece of snow lying on a patch of grass on the campus, a reminder of last week's snow storms.
I was going to write some good news for once, about the much needed heavy rain and snow, the above average rainfall so far this winter. My weekly Shabbat walk yielded the first spring flowers, despite the cold weather. There was a fragile feeling of hope in the air, despite the economic problems, despite the fragility of the make-believe ceasefire, which isn't really a ceasefire, but which is what passes for quiet these days.
On Sunday I rode past the scene of tonight's shooting, on my way into Jerusalem with my friend's mother to watch the recital. Her mother commented to me that she hadn't visited Jerusalem in a long time. She confided to me how much she worried about her daughter taking that route every day.
Looking out the window at the fields beyond Giva't Zeev she gasped "Now they have armoured personnel carriers on the road!" The plural is misleading. A few weeks ago I first noticed the lone APC, apparently stationed there to protect a crew doing roadworks there, or perhaps as a belated response to July's shooting along that same stretch of road which killed an Israeli teenager.
That APC was stationed too far away from the gas station where tonight's attack took place. The gas station is at a junction with a side road leading to the Palestinian villages of El-Jib and Bir Naballah, and from there to Ramallah. It is frequented by Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli gas station serves both populations.
The first shooting on the Modi'in-Jerusalem road was Hannukah, December 2000, when a Palestinian gunman murdered 30-year-old Eli Cohen from Modi'in. There followed another serious attack in January in which three Israelis were wounded. The Israeli army responded by stationing tanks at strategic points along the road, setting up new lookouts on nearby hilltops and increasing patrols.
The road was quiet for over six months. People went back to driving on it at night. The army relaxed, resources were needed elsewhere, the outposts were removed, as were most of the tanks. Palestinian access to the road resumed. All seemed to have gone back to normal.
Then on July 26 Palestinian terrorists ambushed an Israeli car at the Giv'at Zeev end of the road, killing an Israeli teenager. On August 26 there was another attack, this time close to the Modi'in end of the road. Three Israelis were killed, a husband and wife and her brother.
The army responded by once more tightening security, convinced now that the road was a serious night time target for Palestinian terrorists. The tanks re-appeared, Palestinian traffic was barred from the road, there were new army lookouts on the hilltops, stepped up patrols. The road felt safer again. The attacks stopped.
Then two weeks ago, as a goodwill gesture in advance of American peace envoy Anthony Zinni's visit, Israel began removing roadblocks and re-opening roads to Palestinian traffic. With the relative "quiet" of the last few weeks the Israeli army has continued relaxing security measures around Palestinian controlled areas.
On recent journeys I've noticed that the Israeli army removed several positions near Palestinian villages along the Modi'in-Jerusalem road. Near Giv'at Ze-ev security at the checkpoint near the turn-off for Palestinian controlled greater Ramallah has been relaxed as well. A couple of weeks ago I observed tank transporters removing several of the tanks which had been stationed on various strategic hilltops between Modi'in and Giv'at Zeev.
Then tonight, free now to operate at will, the terrorists targeted the road once again.
It's not as if this came entirely out of the blue. The Palestinian "ceasefire" had already shown signs of fraying. Already during Zinni's visit Israel intercepted the giant weapons shipment I wrote about in my last letter, proof that the Palestinians seem to be reducing the violence now in order to prepare even bigger and bolder terror attacks in the coming weeks and months. Why import rockets, explosives and mines unless the "quiet" period was merely a lull before the storm?
Real quiet is still elusive. These last few weeks' supposed ceasefire have included the murder of an Israeli by his Palestinian neighbours in a village north of Jerusalem and the stabbing a few days ago of an Israeli man at the Sherover Promenade in Jerusalem. Last week terrorists, one a Palestinian naval officer, infiltrated across the border from Palestinian controlled Gaza and attacked an Israeli border post, killing four Israeli soldiers. A few days ago Israeli police arrested a Palestinian terror cell near the Palestinian town of Jenin. Those arrested were preparing a car bomb.
Yesterday a Palestinian terrorist, who Arafat claimed was under arrest, was killed in a mysterious explosion in a street near his home in the Palestinian controlled town of Tulkarm. A few hours later Palestinian gunmen opened fire on Israeli soldiers near Nablus/Shekhem, killing one of them. This afternoon members of Yasser Arafat's Fatah, in conjunction with Palestinian policemen, kidnapped an Israeli civilian, 71-year-old Avi Bo'az, visiting Arab friends in Palestinian controlled Beit Jalla. They took him to the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Sahour where they shot him and left his body in the trunk of his car. Some ceasefire.
In these troubled times the radio often plays quiet, sad or wistful songs in between news reports. After a recent update they broadcast a popular song by Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi. The plaintive words repeat like a nation's prayer:
"Let the rain but come in its season, and in the spring scatter for us flowers,
And let us but return to see them then,
No more than that do we need."
About 20 minutes ago Jason arrived home from the grocery store and excitedly urged me to turn on the TV. Judging from his expression I guessed that he wasn't bringing news of an attack. Hopefully. I turned on the set to a news flash about the interception of a ship smuggling weapons to the Palestinian Authority. The vessel belongs to the Palestinian navy and its crew are Palestinian navy personnel. The Israeli patrol which intercepted it discovered a huge cache of arms, mostly from Iran, including mines, grenades, explosives, ammunition and mortars.
Perhaps most worrying of all, though, the Palestinian ship also contained crates full of long-range Katyusha rockets with a range of 20 km (12 miles) - enough to put almost every major Israeli population centre within range, from the southern coastal cities of Be'er Sheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod, to the Tel Aviv suburbs, to the northern cities of Afula and Hadera and the Israeli capital Jerusalem and all its suburbs. Israel's northernmost towns and villages are already in range of Hizbollah gunmen's Katyushas based in southern Lebanon, and in the past Hizbollah hasn't hesitated to fire them at Israeli towns such as Kiryat Shmona and Nahariya. Israelis are all too aware of what Katyushas can do to a populated area - for years northern residents have lived with their bomb shelters ready because Hizbollah lobbed Katyushas at them from time to time.
Good thing American peace envoy General Anthony Zinni is back in town. We hope that this time his visit won't cost us so many Israeli lives. Last time he was here, a month ago, Israel was hit by a wave of Palestinian terror attacks, with over forty Israelis killed in just about a week. More Israelis were killed in that week than in any entire month since the Palestinian onslaught began in September 2000.
Now, like then, Israel has pulled back its army from many positions as a goodwill gesture. Palestinian security forces have been granted freedom of movement. Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks have been removed from almost all Palestinian areas and roads have been reopened to Palestinian traffic. In the past, such measures have given Palestinian terrorists the opportunity to resume their open season on Israelis.
I was thinking about Zinni's visit yesterday, my weekly Jerusalem day. Riding on the number 18 bus down the city's central Jaffa Road I listened to the news reports on Israeli withdrawals and the relaxing of security measures around Palestinian towns. In 1996 the number 18 bus was twice targeted by Palestinian suicide bombers, leaving dozens of Israelis dead. The route passes the now reopened Sbarro restaurant, bombed last August, and Zion Square, bombed during Zinni's last visit here. Further down the road it passes the flower store where a car bomb packed with mortar shells exploded last spring.
It's a chilling reminder of why Israel had to impose such tight restrictions on Palestinian travel in the first place. The only reason things have been relatively quiet lately is because Israel has been taking stringent action to curtail the terrorists' freedom of movement, including many successful strikes against terror bases in which many have been arrested or killed while preparing attacks.
I wasn't the only one thinking about Zinni and whether there would be more bombs. A couple of women sitting near me were discussing the situation. One was frightened about the Israeli withdrawals. Her friend responded by telling her to keep praying that the weather stayed cold. "When it snows in Jerusalem no one can get around, it's the best way to keep the bombers out."
Continuing down to Queen Shlomtzion Street, the road was clogged with traffic bottlenecked in the narrow street. For once the cause wasn't road closures due to suspect packages, but a "Breslev-mobile", a garishly decorated van festooned with Breslev mantras, blaring out Breslev Hassidic music. An ecstatic gaggle of Breslev Hassidim gaily whirled and hopped about around the vehicle - and on top of it - spilling into the road and blocking traffic.
They were out trying to bring joy to the people of Jerusalem, but they had picked a really lousy place to set up. "If they were working they wouldn't be dancing" commented a grizzled old man behind me. "It's freezing outside, they're just trying to keep warm," joked his companion. "Dancing is good for all our souls," countered a third man, "especially in times like these."
On my way home I got on another jam-packed bus to the central bus station. The driver drove like a maniac, even worse than the usual urban bus drivers. One particularly sharp stop sent a bunch of us standing in the corridor toppling into each other like a pack of human dominos. As an elderly lady and all her shopping baskets fell onto me I was pushed into a soldier and narrowly missed impaling myself on the barrel of his M-16, coming away with a beautifully bruised hip. While too late, he moved his gun so that it wasn't blocking the aisle.
At the Central Bus Station it was business as usual. The shiny new bus station was purposely designed with a row of checkpoints at the entrance, increasing the number of people who can be searched at any one time, and thus avoiding the bottleneck that would result if there were a single entrance. Thursday is one of the busiest times of the week, with students making their way home, soldiers on leave, and anyone travelling for the weekend. Even with half a dozen checkpoints there was no way to prevent the lines for inspection stretching out into the street.
As I stood at my bus stop huddled into my bulky winter coat, trying to keep out the stinging cold wind, a couple of women sat down beside me. One of them turned to me and commented: "It's so freezing today I swear it's cold enough to snow." I could certainly second that, inside my fleece-lined boots my toes were freezing into solid blocks of ice.