Friday, July 26, 2002

Drumming at the beach

Thursday, July 25, 2002

It was a beautiful full moon evening. The waves crashing along the shore glistened in the moonlight. At intervals along the beach groups of people gathered around bonfires, some partying, others playing with their kids, most just relaxing after a hard day's work. Couples sat embraced watching the sea.

It was the eve of Tu B'Av, the Jewish festival of love, when in ancient times the single women would wear borrowed white dresses and go out into the vineyards to dance and hopefully attract their future husbands.

At one end of the beach a group of about 50 people sat in a circle, each with a drum, all pounding out the same frenetic Middle Eastern rhythm. Behind them was the Mediterranean Sea. In front of them the flames of the bonfire licked high into the night sky, giving an orange tinge to the silvery light of the full moon.

You may have thought this was some exotic religious ritual. No, it was just DH's annual departmental beach picnic. This year they added some entertainment to the picnic in the form of "the drummers' circle", a group of percussionists who come along with all kinds of Middle Eastern, African and Latin American drums and teach participants some of the basic rhythms, ending with a jam session.

Aside from the drumming it was as usual a very casual affair. People stood around with pita breads full of salad, humous and cold cuts, sipping on chilled beers and orange juices while the kids romped in the sand.

It was just the same as previous years, save that this time three armed security guards kept watch over us. A bunch of picnicking computer programmers and their families is after all a very tempting target for a terrorist.

People have been a bit more on edge since last week's terror attacks. This week two more victims of the Tel Aviv bombing died of their wounds. On Monday Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization called on Palestinian groups to step up terror attacks against Israel. There have been a number of alerts across the country. On Sunday the rail line to Rehovot (south of Tel Aviv) was bombed and the train driver escaped with moderate injuries. Several terrorists have been caught en route to attacks: a suicide bomber near Ramallah; gunmen armed to the teeth near Gaza, on their way to infiltrate a kibbutz. The list goes on.

You'll understand then the relief of many Israelis when we heard that Hamas arch-terrorist Saleh Shehadeh, the man responsible for atrocities such as the bombings of the Dolphinarium disco, the Sbarro pizzeria and the Park Hotel, was killed in an Israeli air strike.

The relief that Shehadeh is dead is tempered by deep sadness that the cost was the tragic deaths of so many Palestinian civilians. It was not meant to be that way. Missions to assassinate Shehadeh had been aborted no less than eight times, because the army was concerned that there were civilians in the vicinity.

Earlier this week there were F-16s over a house in Gaza where Shehadeh was staying. At the last minute Israeli intelligence discovered that there were civilians in the building and the attack was aborted. Had intelligence known that his family were in the building Tuesday night that attack would have been aborted too.

On the rare occasions when unfortunately Israel has killed non-combatants, each time by accident, Israelis are shocked and upset by the tragedy. There is a public outcry. The media ask how it could have happened. Government ministers and senior generals apologise for the civilian deaths. There are inquiries into how the mistake occurred, how the target was missed or why intelligence reports were inaccurate. Disciplinary measures are taken against those responsible for the error.

No one here wants the death of Palestinian civilians. And while people were glad that terror-mastermind Shehadeh was gone, no one celebrated. We don't rejoice in people's deaths, however terrible the enemy.

Our enemy, on the other hand, is very much into celebrating death. For Palestinian terrorists, civilians are the targets, not tragic accidental victims. Our enemies are people who go and murder kids at a pizza parlour and then hold street parties and hand out candies to celebrate the murders. Out of 579 Israelis killed by Palestinians since September 29 2000, 401 have been civilians. Out of 4,287 Israelis wounded, 3,056 have been civilians.

Not only do Palestinian terror groups relish killing Israeli civilians, but they seem to have no qualms about endangering their own. Over and over again we've seen them locate military installations in the heart of civilian areas, run bombmaking labs in apartment blocks, store weapons in private homes and of course shelter terrorists in residential neighbourhoods. They keep civilians around them, knowing that Israel will avoid attacking them when there is a risk of catching civilians in the crossfire. And they have no qualms about leaving booby traps that might hurt their own people, as happened on Thursday when a Palestinian-laid roadmine exploded under a Palestinian bus, injuring ten passengers.

Israelis will keep trying to live, and the Palestinian terrorists will keep trying to kill us. So we'll go to the beach with armed guards and go to weddings with armed guards and do our groceries with armed guards and ride buses with armed guards and check our seats very carefully for suspicious packages and phone the police every time we see someone wearing unusually bulky clothing for the hot Israeli summer.

And come the Jewish New Year in about six weeks' time this will have been going on for two years.

Thursday, July 18, 2002

Horrors ancient and modern

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

This year it feels as though Tisha B'Av, the 9th of Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, came early. The fast day commemorates the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, the massacre of the city's inhabitants and the end of Jewish sovereignty. It comes at the end of a three week mourning period, marking the siege and conquest of the Jewish capital first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then, even more brutally, by the Romans in 70 AD.

Tonight we will sit on the floor, according to the Jewish ritual of mourning, and read the heartrending book of Lamentations, describing in graphic detail the horrors of the last days of independent Jerusalem during the Babylonian siege.

This year it will not be hard to envision the suffering of our ancestors. There are far too many fresh images of carnage in our minds. Yesterday Palestinian terrorists attacked a bus near the religious town of Immanuel - literally, "God is with us", in central Samaria. First they exploded a mine under the bus and then they opened fire on the passengers trapped inside, tossing in a few grenades for good measure.

Among the eight Israeli civilians murdered were three members of the same family, the husband, grandmother and 8-month-old baby. The wife, the 8-month-old's twin and another baby were wounded. Among the seriously wounded was a 22-year-old woman, heavily pregnant with her first child, shot in the stomach and legs. Doctors performed an emergency C-section in an attempt to save the mother and her 8-month-old fetus. Tragically the baby boy survived only a few hours. The mother is still in critical condition.

Yesterday's horrors came after several weeks in which we had something of a reprieve from "successful" terror attacks, now that the Israeli army has taken control of major Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank under "Operation Determined Path". The army's success in catching perpetrators and blowing up bomb factories has saved hundreds of Israeli lives. Several suicide bombers and vehicles jam packed with explosives have been intercepted en route to terror attacks.

Just last week there was a high alert along the Modi'in-Jerusalem road, which was shut for several hours after intelligence sources warned of a planned attack. The terror cell was tracked down to a nearby Palestinian village but they escaped. Yesterday the army caught several Palestinians from a nearby village who had been throwing stones at vehicles on the road. This morning they caught gunmen from another village, including a Fatah gunman planning attacks on the road.

Listening to the names of these villages, Harbata, Beit-Ur-A-Tahta, Beit Likia, places I pass every time I go into Jerusalem, it still feels weird to think that people who live so close, many of whom once worked even closer, are trying to kill us, their neighbours. You may think me crazy after all this terrorism, but I still can't get used to thinking of these places as hostile.

For the most part, certainly in comparison with many other Palestinian areas, these villages have been quiet. But several have also produced killers. One local resident was among the perpetrators of the infamous Ramallah lynch almost two years ago, the one photographed while gleefully waving his bloodied hands to the cheering mob.

It's strange to stand on the hill at the edge of Modi'in and see the tranquil-looking villages to the east and northeast, knowing that should I visit them I might not live to tell the tale.

When I take the bus into Jerusalem I see these villages from the highway, watch the kids walking to school, farmers tending their fields, shepherds guiding their flocks. Some of the villages still sport Hebrew signs advertising plant nurseries, building supplies, car repairs or decorative pottery, a legacy of life before Arafat embarked on his Oslo War.

The exits to the villages are now blocked off with mounds of earth or concrete blocks. We haven't shared this road with Palestinian cars for about a year now; too many Palestinian terrorists took advantage of the arrangement to attack Israeli motorists. This winter, weeds started to sprout on some of the dirt embankments. Others have been bulldozed by Palestinians, only to be rebuilt by the army.

A few of the blocked roads have become trading posts. At any hour of the day you'll see Palestinian taxis and trucks on one side of the blocked exit road and Israeli vehicles on the other delivering supplies and goods. Sometimes they transport people, perhaps taking elderly ladies to their hospital appointments in Jerusalem. An army patrol usually hovers nearby to make sure that terrorists aren't being transported as well. One of these barriers has become so organised that it even has forklift trucks. From time to time Israeli employers come to these roadblocks to pick up Palestinian workers - usually illegally, as Israel has rescinded most work permits due to the obvious security risks.

Sometimes I see Palestinian hitchhikers waiting by the roadside for passing taxis or mini-buses owned by Jerusalem Arabs, which will take them to Jerusalem or the Ramallah-area checkpoints. Occasionally I see someone riding a donkey along the highway shoulder or people walking along the road, waiting to cross to the other side.

Once or twice we've made eye contact. Several weeks ago I noticed a group of schoolgirls, aged about 14 or 15 I would guess, standing by the road near the Palestinian village of El-Jib, close to the Jerusalem end of the highway. They were dressed in typical Palestinian school uniforms, pale blue short dresses worn over jeans, with neat white headscarves. There were road works and the bus slowed. Looking out the window I saw the girls waiting to cross the road. I smiled, instinctively. The schoolgirls stared back, with a mixture of haughtiness and hate.

I reflected on their ages again. The Oslo accords were signed in the autumn of 1993. They would have been little kids then. They had grown up under autonomous Palestinian rule during the Oslo years. They were supposed to be the generation of peace, the kids brought up knowing only the peace process and co-existence. That was the Oslo utopia. Instead their education had taught them hate and death. They are the generation of suicide bombers and jihad.

It was Tammuz 17th, the fast day commemorating the siege of Jerusalem, at the beginning of the summer's three week mourning period. I was staring into the eyes of hate, the eyes of those taught to rejoice in my death.

I found myself feeling only sorrow and pity.

May the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days and may we know no more sorrow.