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.