Monday, April 29, 2002

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes...On Lag Ba'Omer

Monday, April 29, 2002

I realise I've been writing a lot lately. I'm sorry if I've been overloading you all. If I'm overdoing it let me know.

Today I was in Jerusalem to meet a friend for coffee and take care of some errands.
We went to a little out of the way cafי off Jaffa Road. Its glass walls bring back memories of Cafי Moment, blasted to smithereens last month by a suicide bomber. The cosy atmosphere made us feel as though the place existed in a time warp, the staff welcoming customers as they would guests to the family home, appearing oblivious to the everpresent danger all around.

The Jerusalem municipality is doing its best to cheer up terrorised Jerusalemites, sticking huge bright cardboard cutout bouquets along the main roads, and garishly painted lions in squares and on street corners. The festive colours lend a bizarre carnival atmosphere to an otherwise tense city.

Despite the tight security, despite the guards checking bags at most shops and cafes, despite the many stores which have closed down, somehow there was a feeling of renewed hope in the air.

The streets were more crowded than I've seen them in weeks. Many pedestrians seemed to have a new bounce in their step. Israelis are buoyed by the fact that we're finally striking back at the terrorists who've struck in this city's heart so many times. They know that even with the current military successes, terrorism is still a very real threat, but at least the Israeli army has finally done serious damage to the terror network.

We feel that we are no longer helpless in the face of the bombers' onslaught. The whole world may condemn us for defending ourselves, they may threaten us with all manner of sanctions and investigations, but on a day to day basis what Israelis notice is that terrorism is down.

It is a relief to wake up each day, turn on the radio, and to hear of "only" one or two attempted attacks instead of daily suicide bombings. It is incredible to hear each day how many terrorists have been caught, planned attacks foiled due to Israeli military and intelligence operations.

It is heartening to hear other mundane news stories, about the economy, about a bank employee embezzling funds - anything that sounds like the normal news of any other western country.

Following Saturday's carnage in the Israeli village of Adora, the Israeli army finally went into Hebron today to track down the terrorists there. In the fighting one of the gunmen responsible for the Adora murders was shot, and several others arrested. As elsewhere in the Palestinian Authority, large quantities of weapons and explosives were discovered, including another car bomb ready for dispatch to central Israel.

For tonight, though, the news and international politics are far from most Israelis minds. Stick your head outside and you'll get a pall of smoke and the wintry scent of burning wood. The air is so heavy with the smell of burning that my clothes reek of it, even though I've hardly been outdoors tonight. It's Lag Ba'Omer, Israel's national bonfire holiday, and it feels as though the entire country is out tonight, camping out by giant fires.

Kids have been planning the festivities for weeks, piling up huge pyres of wood, from tiny twigs to old cabinets. You'd hardly notice that the moon is almost full tonight; the skyline glows red from the fires set up on nearly every patch of open ground.

Lag Ba'Omer is one of the more esoteric Jewish festivals. There are several traditions regarding the holiday's origins.

The date is the anniversary of the death, roughly 2000 years ago, of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, traditionally held to be the author of the Zohar, the key text of Jewish mysticism. The bonfires may symbolise memorial candles, or the light of the insights into creation found in the Zohar, or the sacred glow of the highest levels of holiness. Scores of thousands make a pilgrimage to Bar Yohai's tomb in northern Israel, holding huge festivities in the rabbi's honour.

Still another tradition maintains that the holiday commemorates the Jewish uprising against Roman oppression during the period of Roman occupation of Israel, roughly 2000 years ago. According to this, the bonfires hark back to the signalling fires lit on the hilltops to carry news of the revolt.

According to another tradition this is the date on which the students of another great sage, Rabbi Akiva, stopped dying of a terrible plague. Many attribute the traditional period of mourning observed at this time of year to the death of Rabbi Akiva's students. For many Lag Ba'Omer marks the end of this period of mourning.

Those who aren't out with the bonfires tonight are probably at weddings, which were prohibited for a month during the period of mourning.

We were also at a wedding tonight, albeit a movie, not the real thing. We aren't big bonfire fans and we figured the cinemas would be empty tonight, so we went to see "Monsoon Wedding".
With all the cultural differences, it's amazing how at home most Israelis felt watching this film about an Indian wedding. The big family with many members flung halfway across the world. The henna ceremony, common amongst many Jewish communities as well. The dusty streets and alleys of Delhi, the concrete, hole-in-the-wall shops, reminiscent of any number of Israeli towns, say Ramle or parts of south Tel Aviv. The invigorating, pounding, drenching rain at the start of the rainy season. The mix of Western modernity and ancient tradition.

On TV tonight the usual live Israeli music show was broadcast from an army base near Bethlehem. Like Vera Lynn entertaining the troops in World War II or Geri Halliwell performing for the anti-terror coalition in the recent Afghan campaign, Israel's songsters were out there singing for our boys and girls in khaki. Here, though, you don't need to fly thousands, or even hundreds, of miles to the front. It's less than an hour away from nearly every major Israeli town and city.

The repertoire included a few "golden oldies" from the early Seventies, in many ways a similar period of attrition, a grinding struggle for survival. The same songs continue to inspire and offer comfort.

Sunday, April 28, 2002

Army doctor in Bethlehem

Sunday, April 28, 2002

At the end of a peaceful and relaxing Shabbat in Modi'in, we turned on the TV last night just in time to catch the end of the news headlines. The newscaster was talking about a "pigu'a", a terror attack. My heart froze. I should be used to it, but perhaps it's just as well that one never quite does.

Terrorists had infiltrated Adora, an Israeli village near Hebron, Saturday morning.
After cutting through the chain-link perimeter fence, they split up to go house to house and then room to room, in an attempt to kill as many Israelis as possible. They shot people as they slept in their beds, and hunted down others who heard the shots and hid. Four people were killed and seven wounded before the gunmen fled.

What is it like to walk into a bedroom and shoot a husband and wife sleeping side by side? How must it feel to stand over the bed of a sleeping five-year-old and shoot her in the forehead at point blank range? What kind of man can move methodically from room to room, checking each bed and pulling the trigger? Even with all the terrorist atrocities of the last 18 months, my mind still refuses to grasp how people can do these things.

Today's newspapers greeted us with the black-bordered photo of a smiling little girl. The caption underneath read, "Danielle Shefi, of blessed memory." This afternoon we watched her parents solemnly bury her, the mourners mostly quiet, a few weeping softly. Her mother and little brother, both wounded in the attack, left their hospital beds to attend. There are no words of comfort on such an occasion, only tears and silence and mumbled farewells.

Today Palestinian organisations are vying with one another as to who deserves the credit for the bloody attack.

This isn't the first attempted infiltration of an Israeli village by Palestinian gunmen, nor is it the first "successful" one. Recent months have seen many such assaults in border areas, though most have fortunately been foiled by Israeli security: in and around Gaza, near Beit Shemesh, in the Jordan Valley. Last month, four members of one family in Eilon Moreh were murdered by a terrorist who broke into their home. Earlier in March, five yeshiva students in Atzmona were killed in the school's study hall by a terrorist with an automatic weapon and grenades.

The terrorists of yesterday's attack came from a village near Hebron, the only major West Bank city not included in Israel's recent anti-terror operation, Defensive Shield. In Hebron, the terror network remains undamaged - gunmen, explosives experts, bombmakers, along with their bombs, guns, grenades, and stolen Israeli vehicles. This is the second major terror attack to come out of Hebron in recent weeks; only two weeks ago, a suicide bomber from the Hebron area blew herself up in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, killing six shoppers.

The Israeli army successfully thwarted a major bombing in central Israel last night. Terrorists in Kalkilya had planned to blow up one of Tel Aviv's tallest skyscrapers. Under American pressure Israeli forces withdrew from Kalkilya a few weeks ago before completing their anti-terror mission. Last night they were forced to go in and finish the job.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army remains in Bethlehem, hoping to apprehend the dozens of wanted Palestinian terrorists holed up in the Church of the Nativity, along with the clergymen and civilians they've taken hostage. Just last night, Israeli police managed to track down and defuse two car bombs near Manger Square, which were destined to wreak more carnage in downtown Jerusalem. One shudders to think what might have happened had Israeli forces already withdrawn from the city.

A close friend of ours was called up for reserve army duty in the Bethlehem area during the recent anti-terrorist mission. As a physician, he served as an army doctor with a combat unit. He described some of his experiences in a recent e-mail:

"In my battalion (about 500 men) there was one death from a sniper, who killed a soldier standing a mere 50 meters from me. It was a bullet through the heart so we had no chance of saving him, even though we tried. There were also numerous minor injuries.

"While I was on leave for two days, the replacement doctor was called by the Palestinians to tend toa pregnant woman. In the end the woman gave birth to her son inside our army ambulance in the Palestinian town of Bet Jalla (from where terrorists fire on the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo). We then sent her to Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital. It turned out that the woman was first cousin to the suicide bomber in the recent Mahane Yehuda market bombing.
"During the campaign I was 'lent' to the Etzion Regional Brigade (in the Bethlehem area). During this time I was mainly tending to the 60 Palestinian terrorists who were our prisoners. Every time one of them complained of anything, even as trivial as a headache, a full medical team including a doctor was sent up to see them. I can add that they got the same food as the Israeli soldiers.

"There was also a case of a Palestinian woman who had had an appendectomy in a Palestinian hospital in Area A (under full Palestinian jurisdiction), and she had to return home to her house in Area B (shared Israeli/Palestinian jurisdiction). Under the circumstances, the Israeli army regional medical officer taxied her home in his jeep."

He is just one of several friends and family suddenly called away from their ordinary lives, putting everything on hold, going off to defend our homes. May they all return safely.

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Jenin eye-witness

Tuesday, April 23, 2002

A lot of you have been asking me what really happened in the Jenin refugee camp, the scene recently of the fiercest battle yet in Israel's ongoing war against Palestinian terrorism.

By chance last week we heard an insider's perspective at perhaps the unlikeliest of places.
Friday night, at a small local synagogue in the remote desert town of Mitzpe Ramon, when we were expecting the rabbi's sermon, a softspoken young man stood up instead. He had returned from three weeks of fighting in Jenin, he said, and he wanted to tell the story.

With quiet calm he told of how his army reserve unit was called up shortly after the Passover seder massacre in Netanya's Park Hotel, a suicide bombing which killed 28 civilians. Of the soldiers who received callup notices, 120 percent reported for duty. That is, on top of those drafted, many who had been exempted from duty volunteered for service. In fact, once word got out that their unit had been called, comrades urgently phoned the draft office asking why they hadn't been notified yet.

One reservist cut short a trek to Thailand, flying home to do his part for his country. Another interrupted a visit to Canada for his sister's wedding, leaving immediately after the ceremony. Soldiers came from all walks of life, and morale was high, with reservists motivated by the conviction that they were fighting in defence of their homes and families from the terrorists who had turned every Israeli town into the front line.

Some were sceptical at first - what would rusty reservists be asked to do? Clean equipment? No, they were told, they were "going in," into the lair of the suicide bombers, to engage the enemy in the Jenin refugee camp.

At the pre-combat briefing, uppermost on the minds of many soldiers were the moral questions. They were to be fighting in a densely-populated urban area. How were they to act upon encountering terrorists sheltering behind women and children? What if they were fired upon from inhabited buildings, or from mosques?

The speaker emphasized this point especially. In preparation to fight against hardened terrorists, his colleagues were primarily concerned about avoiding harm to civilians. No other army would go to such lengths - not America, with its high altitude bombing raids over Afghanistan; not NATO with its indiscriminate bombing in Serbia. How many of his comrades might have survived the fighting had Israel resorted to similar tactics? Despite the heavy losses, though, he was proud that for Israelis, fighting morally was a priority.

One could argue, he noted, as to whether women and children sheltering terrorists merited such protection. In many cases, they took an active part in the combat, helping to prepare - or even detonate - booby traps and bombs. In others, terrorists holed up in a house would have a woman or child open the door to the approaching Israeli soldiers, forcing them to hesitate just long enough for the terrorists to shoot first. This reluctance to harm enemy civilians cost the lives of several Israeli soldiers. But the prevailing attitude was that this is the proper way for the army of a Jewish state to fight.

In one incident, Israeli troops were threatened by a Palestinian sniper holed up in the minaret of a mosque. The easy solution would have been to destroy the minaret from the air. This was rejected for fear of harming a holy site. Instead a riskier tactic was used: an Israeli sniper was positioned to take out the enemy alone. On another occasion, terrorists were holed up in a facility of UNRWA, the United Nations humanitarian agency responsible for the refugee camps, using it as cover to fire on Israeli forces.

Fighting in Jenin was like none they had experienced. The streets were death traps. Every alley was booby trapped; every exposed space was surrounded by enemy snipers. The enemy wore no uniform, blending in with the civilian population. Suicide bombers roamed the streets; every civilian encountered was a potential human bomb. Israeli forces avoided exposure, moving from building to building through the walls where possible - though the buildings were often booby trapped too.

One night Israeli soldiers were stationed in a building flanked by two others. The adjacent buildings were full of people, a mix of civilians and combatants. Suddenly, people began streaming out of one of the buildings, mostly women and children. They were shivering from the cold and the children were whimpering. An Israeli soldier took pity on them, but going out into the street was too risky. Instead, he opened a window and threw them army-issue blankets. The blankets were quickly snapped up, though not by the women and children - rather, by the few men in the crowd, who huddled in the blankets while the women and children continued to shiver and whimper.

The young reservist, no older than my husband, spoke with obvious pride at having done his duty for his people. But he seemed most proud of the high moral standards and compassion demanded of Israeli soldiers, which they stuck to so eagerly, even at times at the cost of their own lives. He thanked God for the privilege to serve his country in its time of crisis, and for bringing him home safely. Then we proceeded with evening prayers.

Knowing what we know, it hurts all the more to hear the Palestinians bandying about lies about a "massacre" in Jenin, while the United Nations and foreign press corps parrot these fabrications without a shred of evidence. Contrary to claims that Jenin was "destroyed" or "levelled" and thousands made homeless, only a small area of the refugee camp was damaged, where the heaviest fighting took place, as can be seen from aerial photographs at: .

Much of the damage was perpetrated by the terrorists themselves, who booby trapped buildings in the hope of destroying them on the heads of Israeli forces. In one incident, this tactic succeeded in killing thirteen soldiers at once. One of the terrorists from Jenin described these tactics at some length, including the use of civilians as human shields, in an interview in Egypt's Al Ahram daily newspaper at: . It makes chilling reading.

Before the UN starts accusing Israel of "creating a humanitarian crisis", perhaps it is time they investigated how UN-run refugee camps have turned into havens for terrorists and bombmakers?

Good night.

Sunday, April 21, 2002

Desert Escapism

Sunday, April 21, 2002

Right now I still feel refreshed from spending a few days in the desert, a few days without news in places where fiddling with the radio often brings more static than news, where the war and the terror feel a world away. Call it escapism if you want, but we all need a dose now and then.

This weekend we had a relative visiting from overseas (yes, we do still get one or two of those!) so we decided to take her down south to spend the weekend in the desert town of Mitzpe Ramon. Located in the Negev Highlands, one of the highest regions of Israel, this little town is perched dramatically on a cliff about 1000 feet above the Ramon Crater, the largest geological crater in the world.

We drove down Thursday night. The journey was smooth, save for a massive traffic jam at the entrance to Be'er Sheva, the last big city we passed, where a police checkpoint had slowed traffic to a snail's pace while each vehicle was inspected. After Be'er Sheva there were few vehicles on the road, and we could enjoy the eerie desert landscape illuminated in the car's headlights.

We last visited Mitzpe Ramon in December and fell in love with the place. We'd visited the area several times before, but only as a waystation on our drive south, never staying more than half a day there. Spending a Shabbat in Mitzpe Ramon we came to appreciate its small town charm.
At first glance it may look like a drab collection of concrete structures in the middle of pristine desert, but in the town itself you see that the buildings have character to them, the streets are nicely lined with ornamental fig and olive trees and many of the buildings have well cared for gardens, the balconies bright with overflowing flower boxes and gaily flapping laundry. The crater edge setting almost feels unreal, like an over the top Hollywood backdrop.

On Friday we drove around the region, visiting the highland national park just north of the town, as well as exploring the crater floor itself, past ancient ruins, weird geological phenomena and several springs.

If your image of desert is monotonous yellow sand, think again. All around us the rocks ranged from palest lemon to an almost black dark red. Here and there mineral deposits created patches of sherbet yellows and pinks, or coppery green. In one spot we saw a hill covered in angular brown stones, rather like wood chips.

Last time we visited, in December, the winter had just set in. The desert in winter bears a hint of the miraculous: the inconsistency of thunderheads over the arid landscape, the contradiction of a greening desert. Flash floods leave behind unexpected lakes in every valley, lasting just long enough to support clusters of trees. The little rainfall that reaches this normally parched earth is enough to bring the first shoots of a green revolution that will transform large stretches of bleak lowlands and sheltered hillsides into pastures by mid-winter.

The desert is a key image in Jewish tradition, symbolising the bleakness of exile, or the ascetic purifying experience transforming us from downtrodden slaves to a free people. The desert in winter promises Israel's redemption, illustrating the otherwise fantastical words of the prophet Isaiah: "I will make the wilderness into a lake and an arid land into a source of water. In the desert I will place cedars, acacias, myrtle and olive trees; in the barren plains I will place cypress, elms and box tree."

Now in April, the transformation is at its peak. Green bushes and little flowers line the sides of the road and the valley beds. Here and there an incongruously green tree grows in the middle of barren desert. In many places the desert flowers form carpets of purples, pinks, whites and yellows. I guess daisies and deserts don't usually go together, but we saw plenty. In highland areas we came across meadows of wild grasses, including wheat, growing in the middle of nowhere, vast patches of green and softness in the otherwise harsh yellow landscape.

Throughout the region the local wildlife was making the most of the brief period of abundance. This time I remembered my binoculars and had a field day, spotting several species I'd never seen before, save in books.

Every tree, bush and meadow was full of songbirds, shy but noisy little warblers, drab but beautifully voiced larks and exotic looking bee-eaters, with their eye catching green and blue plumage. Some of the most striking desert birds, the dazzling black and white wheatears, were everywhere, perched prominently on rocks and road signs in even the bleakest areas.
Agile, arrow shaped swifts and martins skimmed low over the ground, occasionally "buzzing" our car, before pulling up at the last moment. Overhead soared the ravens, and the occasional larger bird of prey, a few buzzards and once an eagle.

Aside from lots of ibex, a common local wild mountain goat, we also saw a couple of onagers, a small, donkey like wild horse, reintroduced to the Negev by Israeli conservationists, half a century after it was driven to extinction throughout the Middle East. Now a sizeable herd roams the Mitzpe Ramon area.

Much of what we learnt about Mitzpe Ramon was thanks to a local rabbi and his wife whom we met by chance on our December visit. He is the principal of the local yeshiva high school, well known for its special environmental studies track, attracting students from across the country to learn in this remote location.

They insisted on giving us a little tour of the town, saying that we must go and look at the crater by moonlight. Eventually we reached a boat-shaped viewing platform jutting out over the crater. All around the rugged scenery was bathed in a silvery light, and the moon was so bright that we could make out details on the crater floor, nearly one thousand feet below us.

This visit, the moon was a thick crescent, the stars magnificent in the dark desert sky as we made our way back from the town's little Ashkenazi synagogue Friday night. The simple concrete and stone structure looks quite plain from the outside. The sanctuary itself has a lovely high vaulted ceiling, and at the front, the aron kodesh, the ark in which the Torah scrolls are kept, is of a most unusual design made from beaten copper. Despite the modern building, it has the feeling of a cosy old synagogue in Jerusalem or Safed.

Shabbat afternoon we went for a walk along the promenade which skims the crater rim. It is one of the most stunning Shabbat walks I've been on. A promenade along the cliff's edge gives the false impression of a seaside atmosphere - you half expect to hear the crashing of waves.
Reaching a camel shaped lookout point we joined a family of Bedouin and a group of local teenagers enjoying the view. The tranquillity was intoxicating, each of us mesmerised by the scale of the crater, in awe of the grandeur of creation, the serenity almost as tangible as the rocks themselves.

Thursday, April 18, 2002

Israel Independence Day

Wednesday, April 17, 2002Independence Day

Last night, as the sun set, Israelis managed the switchover from mourning to joy, from Memorial Day to Independence Day. The songs on the radio gradually eased us from sadness to quiet patriotism to celebration.

Modi'in celebrated with the usual raucous, lavish free pop concert in the town centre. Police cordoned off the area with strictly enforced checkpoints. Thousands of residents flocked to the event. The kids ran wild, spraying each other with foam and silly string. Parents stretched out in the park, somehow enjoying the performances despite the teenage chaos around them. Little children paraded around with balloons and lightsticks, begging their parents for overpriced snacks and blue and white marshmallows. All in all a typical Modi'in Independence Day celebration.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that the radio announced that the sound of explosions over Jerusalem this evening will just be fireworks. I confess to flinching slightly at the sound of the first fireworks over Modi'in. We were enjoying dinner, watching the official festivities in Jerusalem on television, when we heard the first loud bangs and saw the flashes over the valley. Excited, we and our neighbours rushed outdoors, from where we have a great view of the fireworks in a park down the street. Who needs to face the crowds in the centre of town when we can pretty much see and hear it all from home?

It was 3 am by the time we returned from a kumzitz - a fireside singalong - in a park at the edge of the neighbouring town of Makkabim. The day's fierce heatwave had broken, leaving a pleasantly mild evening with a light breeze. Several hundred people packed into the makeshift Bedouin-style tent for an evening of song and storytelling. The hours passed so quickly, song after song, memory after memory.

Israeli songwriter Dan Almagor regaled us with tales from his youth, the stories behind some of his most popular songs and anecdotes from his days in the army entertainment troupes. He recalled how as a twelve-year-old boy he eagerly followed the events leading to Israel's 1948 declaration of independence. In those days Israel had no airforce, no antiaircraft batteries, nothing to stop enemy aircraft from bombing his native town of Rehovot south of Tel Aviv. Egyptian aircraft leisurely circled the small town from low altitudes, wreaking death and destruction on the Israeli heartland. There wasn't much to do but sound the air raid sirens and head for the shelters.

Through 54 years of Israeli folk songs we remembered our history, how the State of Israel was born, how we struggled to survive. It was both frightening and comforting to realise how many times before we've faced such wars of survival, each different in character, but representing the same threat to our existence.

Rather than dwell on what others have done to us, our songs focus on how we can change things, how we can do our bit to make our world better - tikkun olam. We do not sing about martyrs and the glory of death, but of a determined resolve to be strong and of good courage to face any challenge.

We have an amazing repertoire of songs of fortitude, songs of national unity and a stubborn will to survive. Time and again, the last verse expresses future hopes for peace. Maybe we're naive, or we just have strong faith, but we've now been writing and singing such songs for over fifty years, however remote peace has seemed. As the national anthem goes, "We have not yet lost hope."

Perhaps that is part of what draws me to these old songs. The slang may change, but fundamentally they are still just as relevant today as they were in the 40s, 50s and 60s.
Somehow we managed to get up this morning ready to do the Israeli Independence Day thing - a barbecue in the park, Israel's national pastime.

A friend celebrating his birthday today made a barbecue party at a nearby recreation area, arriving early to stake out a nice shady spot near the forest's edge before the crowds arrived.
Police had cordoned off the park, inspecting each vehicle. Soldiers in combat gear patrolled the area, wandering between the barbecues and picnics, doing their best to refuse the huge amounts of food offered to them by grateful civilians.

Imagine happy, festive families, the kids playing hide and seek, dads busy at the grill, mums minding the babies, young couples dancing to mideast-style Israeli music blaring from boomboxes - and in the middle of all this heavily armed soldiers in full battledress carefully inspecting the bushes and keeping a wary eye out for terrorists.

The clearings between the trees were covered in yellow wild mustard, the white umbrellas of wild carrot flowers and red poppies. The purple thistles by the roadside are already growing tall, and we picked our way through them with care on our way to the picnic site.

Throughout the morning huge flocks of migrating spring birds kept passing overhead: storks, swifts and assorted birds of prey. Later on Israel Air Force flypasts took their place - helicopters, transports and fighters in tight formations of three or four aircraft. I could hardly tear my eyes away from the sky. I'm fascinated by anything that flies, bird or machine. A shame I forgot my binoculars.

At around one o'clock we left to go on to another barbecue at a neighbour's home in Modi'in. By then the traffic at the entrance to the park was backed up for a couple of kilometres, about halfway to Modi'in. Latecomers wanted to barbecue too. Good thing we got there early.

Back in Modi'in things were quieter and less crowded, with plenty of garden barbecue parties in progress. Our neighbour had decked out her balcony in blue and white balloons, table cloths and plastic cutlery, with little Israeli flag table arrangements completing the patriotic theme. Half the guests, like us, were wearing the national colours too. Charcoal smoke and song wafted up from a nearby garden. We spent a relaxing afternoon together on the porch, roasting blue and white marshmallows over the grill and enjoying the pleasantly warm spring weather.

Back home this evening we were startled by loud bangs. Someone even sent a note to the Modi'in e-mail list asking if there was shooting. Not to worry, it was only the neighbouring town of Re'ut getting in a last minute firework display, and very beautiful it was too, just visible from my balcony.

All in all a very pleasant and traditional Yom Ha'atzmaut, save for the added security. Who would have thought it possible in the circumstances?

May we know many more calm, pleasant days.

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Memorial Day Eve

Monday, April 15, 2002 Memorial Day Eve

Even in these difficult times you can feel that Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day, is upon us once more. Not that in some ways this whole year hasn't felt like one long memorial day, but the atmosphere is still different.

As every year the streets are decked out with Israeli flags and festive bunting, and those same public buildings, and many private ones too, are also marked with a symbolic paper flame or memorial candle.

If on a normal year though the advertising billboards are covered with festive ads from various Israeli companies wishing us a happy holiday, this year the tone has been more inspirational than festive. While some companies have chosen the traditional "happy holidays" greeting, many others have put up posters with more patriotic messages. The mood is hopeful, cautious optimism, the quintessential Israeli philosophy of "yehiye tov" (things will get better).

Everywhere you go it seems there is the Cellcom billboard with the message: "Together all the way". Only when you get up close do you realise that this is an ad by a mobile phone company and not some political party or Zionist organisation's banner. The Israeli rail company and the Egged bus company have opted for a similar message: "Together we continue to move onward".

Another theme is support for Israel's security forces in these difficult times. A huge poster in Tel Aviv bears the legend "To Israel's security forces, rescue services and support services - our hearts say thank you." The banner is signed with a huge Microsoft Israel logo. Similar posters are sponsored by other companies.

As darkness fell Monday night the radio went over to Memorial Day mode.

Nearly 24 hours of melancholy songs, of which Israel produces a great many.

There is almost a set liturgy of songs for the day.

Israeli war songs are for the most part sombre or sentimental, songs of loss, of the price of heroism. The horror and pain of war are far more dominant themes than glory. Titles such as "The Last Battle", "The Last War" are common, the hope that this will truly be the last time we have to fight. Other songs bear the names of fallen soldiers: Yudke, Giora, Yehuda, Dudu.

At exactly 8pm on Memorial Day evening the memorial sirens began to wail.

Across Israel people stopped whatever they were doing and stood silently, in solemn remembrance of the fallen.

Well over 200 more since last Memorial Day.

At the first sound of the mournful howl the entire country stood still. I snapped to attention, dropping the laundry basket I was holding. My neighbour across the yard froze in the action of hanging her washing.

Amazing how long a minute can seem.

This morning, as every Memorial Day, I was at the Kfar Sava military cemetery at the graveside of a classmate killed five years ago during the Lebanon War.

As the morning memorial siren blared all was still and silent. Then in the distance we heard the rising wail of an ambulance siren followed by the flashing lights of another emergency vehicle whizzing past.

Even when the memorial siren ended, the hysterical clanging of ambulance and police sirens remained. Through the mourning prayers people looked anxiously at one another, fearing that there had been an attack. I noticed a few people nervously checking the news on their cellphones. Thank God it was OK, apparently a false alarm.

It was as usual a brief ceremony, a ritual of remembrance combining Jewish tradition and Western military custom. The Kaddish memorial prayer alongside the European Last Post bugle call. Kel Maleh Rahamim followed by the laying of wreaths and a riflefire honour salute.

Many people come more to meet than for the ceremony itself. By my classmate's grave the regular group of friends, army buddies and family gathered to exchange memories and stories.

All around we are growing up, marrying, starting families, taking on mortgages, building careers and finding our first grey hairs. More than anything these mundane facts of life bring home the reality that our friend will remain twenty-two forever.

Even five years later it is still hard to grasp that he is really gone.

Sometimes he is in my dreams. I'm a guest at his wedding or we meet at a school reunion, or other similar scenarios. I wake up, momentarily happy, and then I realise that it was a dream, and the pain of the loss hits me again, almost as strong as on that terrible night itself.

The cemetery seemed even more crowded than usual, though I'm not sure if it was. As we stood waiting to leave a family brushed by me in the crowd. The son, a boy of about 13, wore the ripped shirt of a fresh mourner, as did a teenage girl, presumably his sister, and a couple of adults. Their eyes were glazed over, seeing but not seeing, the fresh hurt clearly apparent. So many new families added to the list of the bereaved.

Saturday, April 13, 2002

Umm Shmum - Bombs and Diplomacy

Friday, April 12, 2002

During our visit to America I was amazed at how slow the news cycle is there. The same headlines are recycled for a day at a time.

In Israel, stories last no more than a few hours before they are overtaken by the hectic pace of events.

On Wednesday morning, only a few hours after getting back from the US, I was still getting my mind around the deluge of Israeli news when reports came through of a suicide bombing on a bus en route to Jerusalem from Haifa.

Eight dead, fourteen wounded.

The bomber, a native of Jenin, apparently made his way to Haifa from Tulkarm, one of the Palestinian cities Israel just withdrew from under American pressure.

Go Colin Powell.

It was against the backdrop of this story that we heard the news of Wednesday's anti-Israel declaration from world leaders in Madrid. Together, the United Nations, the European Union, the United States of America and the Russian Federation got together to further the cause of world peace by - what else? - condemning Israel.

As we in Israel were burying the previous day's dead, arranging the funerals for the victims of that day's bombing and fighting a difficult urban battle in the terrorists' home bases, the free world was gathering to condemn us for winning, and ordering that we stop with such unacceptable behaviour right now.

After all, Israelis dying like lambs to the slaughter in terrorist attacks - that they can deal with; but Israelis killing terrorists in self-defence - now that is a threat to world peace.

It seems the European powers are still bent on 1930s-style appeasement of terror, with Israel as the new Czechoslovakia, a sacrificial lamb to the powers of tyranny.

The US, for all Bush's tough speeches, seems to be following Europe's lead. Americans were greatly offended a few months ago when Sharon drew the Czechoslovakia comparison, but unfortunately it appears that the warning has gone unheeded.

The United Nations is useless as usual, always eager to side with petty tyrants and tinpot dictators like Syria's Assad over a free democracy like Israel. But we don't expect much more of the body that in 1975 proudly hosted Yasser Arafat in the UN Assembly with a pistol in his holster.

The European Parliament threatened us with economic sanctions. The head of Israel's chamber of commerce scoffed at the suggestion. So long as a cup of coffee in Europe costs a couple of dollars, while in Israel it can cost a couple of lives, Israelis won't be intimidated by economic threats, he said.

The United Nations and Colin Powell threatened us with international observers and perhaps "peacekeepers". If we're lucky they'll be as successful as they are in southern Lebanon. There they stand idly by as Hizballah militiamen launch attacks into northern Israel across the UN-demarcated international border.

Meanwhile Israelis are trying to work out how and if to celebrate Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Israel Independence Day, which falls next Tuesday night and Wednesday.

While we were in the US, several people approached me and asked how Jewish communities there should relate to the holiday this year. How can we celebrate in the midst of a war?

In Israel people are also grappling with that question, though the issue here is primarily one of security. Should we risk large public gatherings and further burden the already stretched resources of the security forces?

This is not that first time we are commemorating our independence in the shadow of war and death, and I fear it will not be the last. In the early years of the state they celebrated this day with the fresh memory of thousands of Israeli war dead. The joy of Yom Ha'atzma'ut is never complete, always dampened by the sadness of the previous day, Yom Hazikaron, Israel Memorial Day.

It is only right that before Independence Day we remember and honour the thousands of Israelis who gave their lives so that we might live. This year more than ever it is appropriate that Jews everywhere take that day to mourn and pray for those no longer with us, especially the over 460 Israelis killed in this war since September 2000, over 750 since the start of the Oslo "peace" process in September 1993.

But it is equally important, and no less an honour to the fallen, that the next day we celebrate the freedom for which they sacrificed, along with everything the state of Israel has achieved.

Fifty-four years ago Israel was an impoverished country flooded with destitute Jewish refugees from Europe and the Middle East. Who would have imagined that in such a short stretch of time we would have a Western standard of living, become a world leader in medicine, agriculture, software and so many other high tech industries, absorb millions of Jewish refugees - and survive repeated Arab attempts to destroy us.

We may still be fighting for our very survival, but we still have a lot to be grateful for.

More than ever this year Israelis have gone crazy for Israeli flags and patriotic blue and white bunting.

It makes Americans look flag-shy.

The big thing here is a flag for your car, preferably two. Many workplaces give out flags for their employees and company cars. Supermarkets have special deals on flags or offer free flags with your purchase. Lampposts along the highways and high streets are festooned with flags, coloured lights and streamers.

In some towns they are cancelling or scaling down the festivities, but in many others, including Jerusalem, there is a feeling that more than ever, we need to celebrate Israel Independence Day, to remember what we are fighting for, what the State of Israel has achieved, and why we're here.

In Modi'in and the neighbouring twin towns of Makkabim-Re'ut Independence Day festivities have been somewhat scaled back because of security concerns. The usual multitude of venues would just be too much of a burden. There will be the usual firework displays and big concerts in the town centres though, with popular singers such as Nurit Galron and Riki Gal, and the more modest traditional Israeli "kumzitz" campfire singaglong in Makkabim. Security will be tight, but people will be doing their best to have a good time, if only for the sake of defiance.

Happy Independence Day.

Shabbat shalom.

Is that a bomb in your belly or are you just expecting a baby?

As I'm getting ready to send this there has been a newsflash of another suicide bombing, this time on a pedestrian crossing, near a crowded bus outside Jerusalem's bustling Mahane Yehuda market. So far reports say six killed and 60 wounded.

Only this week Israeli security forces arrested a young Palestinian woman in Tulkarm who was planning to disguise herself as a pregnant woman, with a bomb hidden in her falsely extended stomach. In Bethlehem a few days ago Israel arrested a 14-year-old girl whose terrorist uncle had asked her to recruit girls from her class as suicide bombers.

Yesterday in Jerusalem there were plenty of Arab women out shopping. A couple of them were sitting behind me on the bus. No doubt most, maybe all, were innocent Israeli or Palestinian Arabs from the Jerusalem area, but who knows anymore whether one of them might just blow herself up as she stands next to you in the bus queue or at the entrance to the supermarket.

It sickens me that this terror war has forced me to think this way, people can no longer just be people, in order to protect myself I have to look twice. I need to think about whether the other folks doing the groceries with me might have explosives strapped to them. I have to question whether the woman standing next to me in the queue might be trying to kill me.

American Secretary of State Powell was in his helicopter in Jerusalem, just a mile away, on his way to meet with Arafat in Ramallah.

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Welcome Home

Tuesday, April 9, 2002 Holocaust Memorial Day

A few hours ago I arrived home in Israel. It felt so good to see the familiar Tel Aviv skyline through the plane window, to feel the aircraft touch down on Israeli soil, to hear the traditional applause of Israeli passengers as the plane taxied on the runway.

It felt so good to feel the moist, warm, Israeli spring air on my face as I walked down the steps from the plane.


On the flight to the US a few weeks ago the plane was half empty. On the way back to Israel it was packed - and not only with Israelis returning from the Passover holiday, but also with Jewish and Christian tourists and pilgrims.

The airport was bustling, with several very full flights arriving at once. The long lines and crowded luggage carousels were gratifying. Yes, many, many foreign visitors are staying away, but the passport control lines for non-Israeli citizens were long and busy; people are still coming, despite the news.

The first thing we did upon leaving customs was to buy a newspaper. As DH returned the American cellphone we had rented, I sat guarding the luggage, catching up on the headlines. Tough fighting in the war against terror in Jenin. Under heavy American pressure, Israel is withdrawing its forces from Tulkarm and Kalkilya. Hizballah is attacking northern Israel from southern Lebanon.

Welcome home.

It feels weird to have just flown in from the US. The American position is painfully frustrating. While fighting his own global war against terrorism, President Bush seems to be smothering Israel with words of honey. He expresses his understanding of Israel's right to self-defence, implies that he sees Arafat as an untrustworthy terrorist, yet in the next breath he applies the thumbscrews on Israel's campaign to actually root out the terrorist havens across the Palestinian Authority.

Every time America calls on Israel to withdraw, to show "restraint", the Palestinian terrorists are emboldened in the expectation that they can continue their assault with impunity, that they just have to hold out until US pressure prevails.

For now, though, Israel seems to be thumbing a collective nose at American pressure. As an Israeli in the airport taxi rank commented, "What are the Americans going to do to us, bomb us? We're already dying every day."

Israel will accommodate the Americans to an extent, wrapping up less-critical operations, but it can't afford to leave this job half-done. The stakes are too high.

We are encouraged, though, by our chance encounters with ordinary Americans during our visit to the US. When people hear where we live, they express their concern for our wellbeing and support for Israel's war on terror.

A shop assistant, a trucker, a postal worker, a gas station attendant, a press photographer, fellow birdwatchers, each in his own way offers words of support and encouragement. "I pray for Israel every night." "America is with you." "I tell friends Jerusalem should be the first place they visit abroad." "I think we should let you guys finish the job."

We were moved by the outpourings of sympathy and encouragement, sometimes even taken aback by the vehemence of some, the staunch, unwavering support for Israel we encounter from total strangers, American non-Jews who seem to have taken Israel's cause so much to heart that it has become their own.

Back home in Israel, in the taxi on the way back from the airport the driver had the news on, a mix of reports on cabinet politics, American diplomacy and commemoration events for Holocaust Memorial Day.

Suddenly the military correspondent broke in with a report of 13 Israeli soldiers killed and 7 wounded by Palestinian booby traps in a building in Jenin.

We gave a collective "oy", each person feeling the pain of loss. We didn't even know who had been killed, only that as Israelis they are flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood.

It is small comfort, but especially today, on Holocaust Memorial Day, it means a lot that the thirteen Israelis killed today were soldiers who died fighting the terrorist enemy in Jenin and not Israeli civilians shopping in central Jerusalem or attending a seder in Netanya.

In the twelve days of Israel's counter-offensive against Palestinian terrorism successful terror attacks against Israeli civilians have virtually ceased. If soldiers must lose their lives to defend civilians, that is the unfortunate price of self-defense.

Israel is in a difficult war, and if we were America or NATO or certainly one of our neighbouring states, we would have solved the problem of these urban terror bases by bombing them into rubble. But Israel does not want to do that in a dense urban area where civilians and terrorists live side by side, in the same buildings. That is why Israeli soldiers are going the more dangerous route of house to house searches, and that is why they are so exposed to Palestinian snipers and booby trapped buildings and streets. This is the best way to minimize civilian casualties, even as the terrorists shelter behind civilians, using women and children, medics and ambulances, even Christian clergy and ancient churches, as human shields and camouflage.

The Israel radio correspondent in the Palestinian areas reports on exactly how the ambush was set, how in the course of the fighting in Jenin Israeli soldiers have found unprecedented quantities of explosives and booby traps, some containing as much as 100 kilograms of dynamite a piece. Today the terrorists lucked out and are proclaiming a great victory.

"We are a stupid nation!" our taxi driver curses over the news reports. "Damn it, we ought to lay into those bastards harder!" The words hang in the empty air and we know exactly how he feels. Every Israeli knows exactly how he feels.

Continuing along the road to Modi'in we pass a crowded parking lot on the edge of a nearby forest, next to the Holocaust memorial for the Jews of Zaglembie, southern Poland. Even as we're remembering the millions of Jews murdered by Hitler, we're burying the victims of today's war against the Jews. The difference is that today we have a state and an army to defend us.

Entering Modi'in we pass the by the now standard police checkpoint at the entrance to town. Welcome home.

Yes, things are tense here, but it is still good to be home.

Wednesday, April 03, 2002

Letter from America

Tuesday, April 2, 2002

Looking back on last Pesah (Passover), our first in the shadow of this war, it all seems like a dream in contrast with the blood and horror this year.

Last March I considered three Israelis killed in three days, March 25-28, to be a lot. What should I say about over 30 murdered Israelis in that same time period this year?

Last Passover we sat down to the festive seder meal with the radio reporting a lull in attacks. This year we sat down to the feast shrouded in mourning, fresh from the news of the seder night massacre in Netanya.

In total this March over 125 Israelis have been murdered, the worst Israeli death toll of the war so far.

I'm writing this from the tranquility of suburban Washington, D.C., but my heart is home in Israel and I'm aching to be there, to be back with my fellow Israelis, especially during these days of agony. DH and I are in the US to spend the eight-day Passover holiday with family who live here.

It is terribly hard being so far from Israel, especially in time of crisis.

More than anything I'm thirsty for news from home. Three days of Yom Tov and Shabbat seemed like an eternity, disconnected from phone and Internet connections, relying solely on the superficial reports from the daily American newspaper.

Finally connecting to the internet after Shabbat I discovered that a couple of friends have received emergency draft notices from the army.

The peace and quiet of suburban America seems unreal to us. The unguarded shopping malls and bustling thoroughfares devoid of police and soldiers are like something out of a past life, perhaps straight from a Hollywood fantasy. People here come and go as they please, no one carries a gun and even airport security was something of a joke.

It feels odd to see the throngs of people enjoying the cherry blossoms in downtown Washington, ambling carefree in the city centre, hardly a policeman in sight, no heavily armed guards on every street corner. There are no checkpoints, no one searches us before going into a store or restaurant.

And of course this is America post-September 11, yet the only noticeable security change has been that passengers are required to remain seated on the flight from New York to Washington and you can't carry tweezers or knitting needles in your hand luggage. It is all a far cry from Israeli-style security, even before the war, and this is supposedly America on alert.

The main visible change is the flags. They are everywhere. Every other person's lapel has a Stars and Stripes button, every house, every car, every store - the flag is everywhere like never before. I feel strange for not wearing the American flag, almost buying one just to fit in.

We've spent most of our time visiting relatives and friends, doing some sightseeing, and of course getting in some birdwatching, but today we went to an anti-terrorism rally organised by local Jewish and Christian groups outside Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation offices in downtown Washington. A few hundred people attended, a mix of friends of Israel from across the board: Orthodox Jews, secular Zionists, messianic Christians and some ordinary Americans passing by who stopped and offered their support.

It was a strange sensation to stand there, almost unguarded, holding a sign, in a dense crowd clearly identified with Israel. I felt exposed, because there were no soldiers with M-16s at the ready protecting me. I found myself scanning each passerby, wondering if they were a suicide bomber or gunman. In Israel people now avoid crowded places, certainly no one would think of holding any kind of public gathering on a street corner like that, without barricades or armed guards, with passersby free to come and go as they please.

I kept thinking of the anti-terror rally I attended a few weeks ago in Tel Aviv, the aim of which was to express public unity and fortitude. It was the first demonstration or rally of any kind I'd attended in a long time. All around Rabin Square, the site of the gathering, police cordons had turned central Tel Aviv into a "sterile zone". Security forces were everywhere, no one was allowed through without being searched with handheld metal detectors and having their IDs checked.

On the giant screen behind the podium notices flashed up regularly with directions on what to do in case of a terrorist attack. Those with guns were warned not to use them in case they accidentally caught innocents in the crossfire. Police on the rooftops trained their guns on the streets around the square. And in the middle of it all the crowd sang songs of comfort, of faith and of defiance: "The nation of Israel lives".

The crowd was a diverse mix of Israelis from all backgrounds, religious, secular, kibbutzniks, settlers, immigrants and old timers, hip Tel Aviv women in scanty clothes alongside traditional religious Jerusalemite women in long dresses and headscarves. And all of us, despite the security, nervously scanning the people around us, just in case.

Today in Washington there was also a mixed group of people, but they were carefree, and unthreatened, with just one or two cops on hand to make sure that the sidewalk wasn't completely blocked. That was it. Outside the PLO offices in DC.

Visiting America brings home to me again and again how during the last 18 months we in Israel have come to accept and adapt to the abnormality of life in the midst of terrorism, and the realisation is frightening.

At home I have become horribly used to the idea that when I go into Jerusalem for the day, or when I go out to a Tel Aviv restaurant one evening, I may not return. It is for the most part an unspoken, subconscious knowledge, something that is always there, but which I put to one side in order to get on with living my life.

Here in the US this realisation is constantly at the fore. I understand how much living with terrorism has become part of the way I look at the world and suddenly the relative safety and complacency of the US is what seems abnormal.