Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Checkpoints and the neighbours

Friday, February 27, 2002

I was going to send out a letter about yesterday's Purim holiday, the merriest festival of the Jewish year, but I guess that will have to wait.
Jason and I were sitting in our living room tonight, folding some laundry and watching a melodramatic British courtroom drama on TV when we heard a loud bang. We hear a lot of bangs around here, building work down the road, police dealing with suspect packages, this time of year also kids playing around with Purim firecrackers, but this bang was different.
Jason thought it might be a sonic boom, rather odd for the time of night though.
I knew it was a bomb. When I lived in London I heard several IRA bombs go off not far from my house. I recognised the sound.
Someone sent a nervous note to the Modi'in area e-mail list asking if anyone knew what the blast had been. A short time later someone else posted a response to the list informing us that a Palestinian woman suicide bomber blew herself up at the checkpoint close to the village of Makkabim, about a mile east of Modi'in.
Apparently a suspicious vehicle pulled up at the roadblock. The two men in the car had Israeli identity cards from the mixed Jewish-Arab town of Lod just south of here. The young woman in the back seat had no ID so the police asked her to get out of the car. She stood and talked with them a bit before blowing herself up, killing herself, seriously wounding the two men in the car and moderately wounding two Israeli policemen.
I guess it was just a matter of time. We're so close to Palestinian controlled territory, just over 10 miles from the terrorist stronghold of Ramallah and much closer to many small Palestinian villages. So many other Israeli border areas have been attacked and until now, thank God, the Modi'in area has been pretty quiet, with a few attacks on the road to Jerusalem or a few kilometres to the north, but nothing in the towns themselves. I guess this lulled us into a feeling that we were safe if we avoided the roads near Palestinian villages.
There are often police roadblocks at the entrance to Modi'in and the neighbouring towns of Makkabim and Re'ut, as well as regular police and army patrols throughout the region, and of course the main checkpoint on the road to Jerusalem which borders Palestinian controlled areas.
Thank God for that checkpoint on the Jerusalem-Modi'in road. Without it there would have been nothing to stop the terrorists from driving with their bombs right into any Israeli town or village in the Modi'in area - or, for that matter, any other Israeli town, after all, we're only half an hour from large cities such as Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva.
Tonight's attack illustrates how vital these checkpoints are to defend Israeli population centres. If the bombers' car hadn't been pulled over tonight those terrorists might be anywhere now. At the moment Israeli security forces manage to foil about 80% of attempted terrorist attacks, and the checkpoints are an important part of that defensive infrastructure.
It is perhaps for this reason that the checkpoints themselves have become the latest targets in the Palestinian war against us. The checkpoints are also convenient, vulnerable, and often isolated positions, stationary targets where the soldiers may have predictable routines. Roadblocks are designed for large numbers of civilians, both Israeli and Palestinian, to pass through on a regular basis, allowing the terrorists to approach easily, without arousing suspicion. Without uniforms, hiding their weapons under bulky winter coats, the gunmen simply appear to be regular Palestinian civilians, and by the time the Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint realise that something is amiss the gunman can be in point blank range.
In recent weeks there have been several attacks on checkpoints. A week and a half ago Palestinians ambushed a checkpoint just north of Ramallah, killing an Israeli soldier. Then last Tuesday gunmen mowed down six Israeli soldiers manning a checkpoint just west of Ramallah.
Not long afterwards Palestinians assaulted a roadblock near Baka el Gharbieh, an Israeli border village close to the northern Israeli city of Hadera. This time the soldiers caught the assailants in time, killing them, though not before several Israelis had been shot and wounded.
The army is now re-evaluating its deployment of checkpoints, assessing their vulnerabilities and alternatives such as mobile checkpoints and increased patrols.
Following the shootings there has been a heightened alert at checkpoints. Last Thursday on my way from Modi'in to Jerusalem I noticed that at the checkpoint on the Modi'in-Jerusalem highway, east of Modi'in, soldiers seemed more careful in their inspections. Heavily protected in flak jackets and helmets and hunkered down behind concrete blockades, they paid much more attention to all the vehicles passing through.
As the bus approached the Jerusalem suburb of Givat Zeev we noticed an even heavier security presence and traffic in the opposite direction was backed up for over a kilometre with police vehicles blocking the checkpoint at the turn for the usually busy road to to the Atarot industrial zone. Later that morning I heard that there had been a shooting on the Atarot road.
At the checkpoint at the northern entrance to Jerusalem the closer inspections meant that traffic was even more backed up than on a regular weekday morning. The bus I was on was stopped and boarded by a soldier who scrutinised the passengers before allowing us on our way.
I thought I noticed my cousin amongst the soldiers manning the roadblock, but I didn't want to wave just in case someone mistook my innocent gesture for a terrorist waving a gun or trying to detonate a bomb. The recent attacks have meant that soldiers are more suspicious about any unusual behaviour around checkpoints, and there have been several incidents when they have mistakenly fired at both Israeli and Palestinian civilian vehicles acting strangely near checkpoints.
The checkpoint assaults have been part of a general increase in attacks recently, aside from a brief lull over the Muslim festival of Eid al Adha a few days ago. Since February 18 Palestinian terrorists have killed sixteen Israelis and wounded many more.
Just this morning an Israeli was murdered by his Palestinian employee at a coffee factory in Jerusalem's Atarot industrial zone. On Monday, Purim eve, two more Israeli men were killed, and a pregnant Israeli woman wounded in a drive-by shooting near the Israeli village of Tekoa, south of Jerusalem. That night a Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a bus stop in the Jerusalem suburb of Neve Ya'akov, killing a police woman and wounding several civilians. The Palestinian press is crowing, the terrorists, emboldened by their successes, are competing with each other as to who will kill more Israelis.
In central Jerusalem this week police were taking no chances, especially with so many children off school because of the Purim festival. Jaffa Road, scene of so many terror attacks, had roadblocks at either end, a sort of island in the middle of a major junction with police inspecting passing traffic.
Further down the road renovation work was still underway on stores damaged by the bombing a few weeks ago. Other shops had repaired damaged storefronts, which now proudly displayed festive Purim decorations and large Israeli flags.
Across the road in Zion Square a grey bearded man with a big black velvet yarmulke was playing a Middle Eastern style shepherd's flute. A group of young, headscarfed Arab women and their children sat nearby enjoying the music.
On my bus a women looked out on the scene and muttered to her companion that we Israelis must be crazy. An Arab woman blew up this street a few weeks ago, and yet Arabs still freely enjoy the amenities of downtown Jerusalem, while we must go around afraid, never knowing whether the Arab walking down the street towards us is just an innocent shopper or a suicide bomber. Someone else noted that this wasn't crazy, it's just a fact of life that the terrorists use to instil fear and sew suspicion amongst neighbours.
I arrived at the central bus station with quarter of an hour to spare before my bus back to Modi'in. It's been unseasonably warm lately, so I sat at my bus stop and read my book. I felt a car move very slowly past and felt someone staring at me. I looked up to see a police patrol car inching along the road by the bus station, inspecting each oddly parked car, every suspicious looking passer by. As I sat there it looped around the bus station area, always at that same slow pace, studying the vehicles and pedestrians, letting nothing escape their gaze.
God willing tomorrow I'll write about happier events over the Purim holiday.
Good night.

Saturday, February 02, 2002

Bittersweet Tu B'Shvat

Friday, February 1, 2002

Dear family and friends,
We've mostly been home over the last week. I'm getting over a nasty bout of bronchitis. I missed my weekly Jerusalem day, Thursday, when I go to class and take care of anything that I need a big city for. This morning, though, Jason and I were feeling a lot better and we decided to use the weekend to take care of a few errands in Jerusalem.
In central Jerusalem this morning I was pleasantly surprised to find the area bustling as usual. I don't know if it's because of the unseasonably warm weather of because it was Friday morning, the start of the weekend, but in any case, it's the busiest I've seen the city centre for a while, and I'm usually there at least once a week.
The popular Cafe Rimon was packed to bursting, the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall was crowded and it felt almost like old times in downtown Jerusalem, save for a much bigger police presence than usual. And the falafel at Moshiko's on Ben Yehuda is as good as ever.
On the downside several other well known eateries have either moved or closed down. The legendary Cafe Atara, which has been around longer than the State of Israel, has moved to a quieter residential area, ironically on Gaza Street. Another popular Ben Yehuda meeting place, Cafe Chagall, is now in a shopping mall in the sleepy Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion, its huge Ben Yehuda premises empty. Rumour has it that Starbucks might open its first Jerusalem branch there, but I'll believe that when I see it. Several other stores have closing-down sales advertised, and on Jaffa Road a few were temporarily closed due either to bomb damage or financial problems. One or two still sported post-September 11 banners with message of support and sympathy for New York and the American people.
Outside a bank a busker was playing a lively klezmer rendition of the popular Israeli folk song "Bashana Haba-ah" - Next Year. The jaunty clarinet music brought to mind the words of the song (my rough translation):
"Next year we'll sit on the balcony
And count the migrating birds.
Children on vacation will play catch
Between the house and the fields.
You'll see just how good it will be next year.
"Red grapes will ripen by the evening
To be served chilled at the table.
And subdued winds will blow over the road
Carrying old newspapers and a cloud.
Oh you'll see just how good it will be next year."
It is one of those quintessentially Israeli songs, maybe a little cliched, a little naive, a little saccharine, but full of the basic optimism that despite the current situation things will get better, our dreams will be fulfilled, peace is as always just around the next crisis.
As we walked down the street the busker moved on to another Israeli classic "Yerushalayim shel Zahav" - Jerusalem of Gold. I last heard that tune last Sunday as I sat at home watching the breaking news from Jerusalem. As the clock in Jerusalem's Bell Centre chimed the hour, its bells rang out Jerusalem the Gold, the faint melody penetrating the chaos of the sirens and shouts of emergency crews at the scene of the latest suicide bombing on Jaffa Road, just around the corner.
The following day was Tu B'Shvat, the new year for trees, the festival which falls in the middle of winter, heralding the approach of spring. It is a festival of renewal, of tree planting, of celebrating the bounty of the land. All around Jerusalem, and elsewhere in Israel, the almond trees are in blossom, dotting the hillsides and fields with puffs of pink and white. On the bare fig trees the first tiny unripe figs are making an appearance.
The stores are full of every kind of dried fruit, from the typical dates, figs and apricots, to more exotic dried etrog (citron) peel and candied kumquats, and the traditional, if nowadays often forgotten, dried carob. Considering the abundance of carob trees here one might as well just collect the dried out fallen fruit, but anyway. Many workplaces serve special fruit platters or send their workers home with baskets of dried fruit.
Some Jews have the custom of holding a special Tu B'Shvat feast at which fruits and nuts are eaten and biblical verses read which refer to the symbolism of the different fruits. The Seven Species, fruits and grains biblically identified with the Land of Israel, hold centre stage, and are blessed and eaten before the other produce. As with many of our festivals, Tu B'Shvat is a festival of the Land of Israel, which has little meaning elsewhere, so tied is it to the seasons and species native to this part of the world. We had meant to go to one, but unfortunately we weren't well enough. Please God next year.
On a more sombre note, for me it's also a time for remembering a classmate who was killed on active duty in a military helicopter crash five years ago. The crash claimed the lives of 73 Israelis, making it the worst such disaster in Israel's history. Israel Channel 1 is going to show a commemorative programme on the event and the memory is cruelly jerked with every promo shown, bringing back that terrible evening's news over and over again, as an eyewitness repeatedly describes the crash over a kibbutz in northern Israel. Last week families of those killed held a tree planting ceremony in their memory near the crash site. It's a time of year when a few of us make a point of calling each other, just to reminisce.
So that's how it's been lately, bittersweet.