Sunday, October 26, 2003

Final honours

Saturday night, October 25, 2003
Motzaei Shabbat Bereishit

It's hard exiting the sukkah, leaving the womblike dim light filtering through the branches and stepping back out under the wide open blue skies. We had looked forward to spending the festival with my mother this year, but it was not meant to be.

Instead, we stood under such azure skies a few days after the festival as we consecrated her tombstone. She always adored this sky. She said that nowhere in the world are there such clear, bright blue skies as in Israel.

The silence of the tranquil rustic cemetery was broken by skyward sounds: birdsong and the frequent whop-whop of military helicopters. As I was delivering the eulogy, a jet roared overhead. Despite the sombre moment, it was hard not to turn my eyes heavenward to try and identify the tiny dot among the vapour trails: an F-16, or perhaps more of the modified Phantoms which had streaked across the sky during my mother's funeral, a coincidental honour guard. "My eagle-eyed daughter", my mother would say. "How does she know these things?" She would have laughed.

My mother would have loved that blissful hill. A fine place for her final home. Wooded slopes surrounding the graves of Jerusalem stone. The air scented with Jerusalem pine and cypress, the high ground affording refreshing mountain breezes. My mother never liked the heat.

It's unsettling to conclude a tombstone setting. It's not like a funeral where you go home and sit shiva and spend a week in mourning. You stand there and reopen all the memories and then you just go home and get on with things. We decided to go out for a memorial lunch in Mum's honour.

Beit Anna Ticho, a favourite Jerusalem haunt of hers, is a little sanctuary in the centre of noisy, crowded, central Jerusalem. At the top of the road is the bustle and hum of Neviim Street. At the bottom is the traffic and chaos of Jaffa Road. In between is Rav Kook Street, capped at one end by the municipal car pound, at the other by a taxi rank. In the middle is an easily overlooked alley leading to Rabbi Kook's historic home. Facing it, behind towering walls, is an enchanting garden.

In the garden is Beit Anna Ticho, a small art gallery with a cafe / restaurant, an island of flowers and trees amidst the Jerusalem stone buildings. Here we would come after a day about town, plonk ourselves on the terrace and gaze down on the gnarled olive trees and wispy pines. Onion soup and wild mushroom strudel, maybe pasta or salad, and then a hard choice between Mum's favourite desserts: iced coffee with ice cream, or hot brownies and chocolate sauce.

Today we had both, in her honour.

Leaving the restaurant, I remembered my last visit here. Standing at the edge of the flower lined path, in my mind's eye I saw my mother there as she had stood a few months ago, glowing in delight, cheeks flushed, eyes sparkling under a white straw hat, dappled sunlight flooding through the tree canopy above.

We must come again soon, she'd said. Indeed we must.

Shavua tov.

Friday, September 05, 2003

Framed by terror

Thursday, September 4, 2003

My mother's passing was framed by terror.

The morning of August 12 two suicide bombers attacked a Rosh Ha'ayin shopping centre and later an Ariel bus stop. I was sitting alone in my teacher's silversmithing studio working on a pendant, listening to radio reports of the morning's terrible news, feeling like the nightmare was starting all over again.

Yet there I was at the workbench making something upbeat and full of optimism, taking a dirty looking, jagged piece of metal and turning it into a beautiful silver necklace, the act of creation as always restoring my spirits and my faith.

Then came that terrible phone call. Stunned, my hammer fell to the workbench, the tiny pomegranate clattering to the floor, my world shattered in the blink of an eye.

When my DH called I knew from the timbre of his voice that something was very wrong. I was sure someone we knew had been hurt or killed in that morning's bombings. I wasn't prepared for what followed: My mother had died suddenly, after a routine outpatient scan to assess the progress of her chemotherapy.

After the initial shock, I was struck by the irony of it all. I was worried about friends who worked in Rosh Ha'ayin. My mother had been nervous of riding the buses in Jerusalem. Sometimes in the mad rush of current events here, you forget that despite the hell of terror, ordinary life kills far more people.

During the shiva, the initial week-long mourning period, I sat with family and friends reminiscing about my mother's life, browsing through stacks of photo albums. My mother aged three at the beach. Aged fourteen on her first visit to Israel. As a young bride. A new mother. On vacation with family friends. At my bat-mitzvah party. At my wedding. Vacationing with my husband and me. And so on and so on. So many wonderful memories, so many beautiful photos. A life cut short, but nevertheless a rich life.

As I sat barefoot on the floor on the eve of the last day of shiva, August 19, I heard the news of the bombing of a Jerusalem bus packed with worshipers returning from the Western Wall.

My shirt was torn as a symbol of my bereaved status, my hair unwashed since the funeral, according to Jewish custom. The thick seven-day memorial candle flickered at the makeshift prayer lectern, and extra prayer books and chairs were stacked by the door for the thrice daily prayer services held in a house of mourning.

I couldn't conceive of deeper grief than what I felt for my mother. Yet my grief must pale against that of the parents mourning their children, taken so suddenly, brutally and deliberately.

How ironic that the bomber was a teacher. My mother was a religious studies teacher, an educator of hundreds, maybe thousands, of students young and old, with so much good work left to do in this world. She had dedicated herself to life, fought her illness tooth and nail. The morning of her death my uncle found her notes and bible spread out on the dining table, preparations for a class she was planning to give later this summer.

And here was this Palestinian religious studies teacher, a healthy, young man, ready not only to throw his life away, but to take a score of innocent souls with him on his demonic quest for paradise via mass murder.

Oddly enough the last time I rode on that bus from the Western Wall was last winter with my mother. Usually we preferred to walk back from visiting the Kotel, savouring the stone streets, the maze of alleys with their sheltered courtyards and market stalls.

It was an invigoratingly cold day and my mother was enjoying our walk through the Old City, but then she started to feel bad, some kind of stomach upset she thought, so we took the bus back to the new city. It was as usual packed to the gills, but a sweet seminary girl gave my mother a seat and she felt better by the time we got off the bus.

Only this May we discovered that the persistent stomach upsets were terminal cancer.

Amidst the terrible heartbreak and sorrow of seeing my mother undergo chemotherapy, of losing her so suddenly, there is some consolation, however poorly I can grasp it, in knowing that this is the way of the world, the way of all life. Despite the war, most people here die of illness and accident, as in other Western countries.

Cancer strikes so many, destroying lives, destroying families, but it is an insentient disease, an indiscriminate killer performing its function in the world. It is sadly the natural order, in every nation on earth, that children bury their parents.

My mother died peacefully, of natural causes. In some ways that itself is a blessing.

May we all be inscribed in the book of life for the coming year.

Ktiva vehatima tova.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Afula Express

Monday, May 19, 2003
Lag Ba'Omer

The fires tonight should be the joyous bonfires of the Lag Ba'Omer holiday, not the melancholy flickering of memorial candles at the scene of yet another terrorist outrage.

That was my thought this morning as we spent an hour stuck at an army roadblock at the entrance to Jerusalem. A mix of Jewish and Arab motorists frustratedly jockeyed between the slow moving lines of vehicles which snaked back from the checkpoint.

Yesterday morning, only an hour or so after the Jerusalem bus bombing, the lines at that very same roadblock had been short, traffic moving through it at a regular pace, the routine checks just part of the regular rhythm of life. Today the soldiers were more vigilant, paying particular attention to drivers who looked like religious Jews, the disguise used by two of the recent suicide bombers.

The sequence of events is familiar. In an effort to move towards peace, Israel eases travel restrictions on Palestinians and allows more of them to return to work in Israel. Terrorists take advantage of the lifting of the closure to infiltrate Israel, and a new wave of terror strikes Israeli cities.

This time, the restrictions were eased just a week ago during the visit of Secretary of State Powell, as a gesture to the new Palestinian prime minister. The result: over the last 48 hours, six suicide bombers have attacked Israeli targets, killing two in a public square in Hebron, seven on a bus in Jerusalem and three outside a shopping center in Afula.

Afula, in northern Israel, was the site of this evening's murderous attack. Fifty were wounded, thirteen seriously. Were it not for the penchant of Palestinian terrorists to attack this remote small town, few foreigners would probably have heard of it. Visitors to Israel have little reason to stop there, at most passing through on the way to somewhere else.

Its proximity to northern Samaria, just five kilometres from the Palestinian town of Jenin, makes Afula a relatively easy target. It sits right on the main east-west highway from the densely populated coast through the rural Jezreel Valley towards the Jordan River.

Most of my visits to Afula have involved getting lost there while driving through. Through these unintended detours, I've actually seen quite a lot of the town. It's a typical provincial Israeli town, with low-rise concrete apartment buildings and new suburbs with pretty little cottages. Its shops, mall and hospital make it a regional service centre.

Before terrorism brought it to the headlines, most Israelis associated the town with two of our national snacks. It's the roasted sunflower seed capital of Israel and home to a legendary falafel joint where they toss the falafel balls in the air while making up your pita bread sandwich. Oh, they catch them too. Afula's other claim to fame is its starring role in an award-winning Israeli movie, Afula Express, about a pair of ordinary Israelis trying to make the big time.

Viewing Afula from above, it takes on surprising charm. Drive up nearby Mount Gilboa and you'll see the whole Jezreel Valley spread out before you in the mountain's shadow. In the middle of the valley sits Afula, picturesque and serene in the golden late afternoon light, nestled amongst the fields, glittering fish ponds and, of course, its famous sunflowers.

Open the bible and you'll find that Afula rests in the middle of one of the most momentous regions of the country. The fertile earth of the Jezreel Valley made it the country's breadbasket in ancient times. Today, after centuries of neglect, it is once again an important agricultural centre. It was part of the heartland of the biblical kingdom of northern Israel; for a period the nearby city of Jezreel served as the Israelite capital and was later destroyed by the Assyrians.

It was the setting of many historic battles, a natural route for invading armies. Up on the Gilboa, King Saul fell upon his sword rather than face mutilation and death at the hands of the Philistine army.

In ancient Jezreel, the daughters of the Philistines rejoiced in the slaughter of Israelis. Today, Palestinians revel in the killing of modern Israelis in the very same lush valley. If they love this land as much as they claim to, how can they destroy it so eagerly?

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Flowers for Memorial Day

Tuesday, May 6, 2003
Memorial Day

Springtime in Israel feels as though the very land itself has put on its holiday best in honour of the festive season. The summer dryness has yet to brown the lush green fields of winter, the flowers are bright and blooming and the fruit trees which will be ready to harvest in late summer or autumn are now covered in blossoms or infant fruitlets.

Amidst the vibrant rainbow of wildflowers, the bright red poppies stand out in particular. Close up, the flower looks fragile, its tissuey petals like the flimsiest silk. Viewed from a distance they make the strongest statement of any of this season's blooms, standing out from afar, a ruddy stain in the midst of the greens, yellows and pinkish hues.

For all their dazzling loveliness, though, these flowers evoke great tragedy. Ever since reading the British war poets, I can't look at poppies without thinking of Flanders fields. On Britain's Remembrance Sunday, in November, the flowers are everywhere, on lapels and wreaths, bright dots of colour under the threatening, wintry skies. Paper flowers, that is, for November is not exactly flower season in northern Europe.

Here in Israel the poppy's red expanses paint the landscape on our Memorial Day. Israel was lynched at the very time of her birth in the spring of 1948. The vibrant meadows of poppies were soaked in the blood of the infant state's defenders and the attacking soldiers of the seven neighbouring Arab states.

Israeli poet Natan Yonatan, perhaps aware of the First World War symbolism, saw in the fields of wild poppies the bloodied fields of 1948 and successive wars:

"Have you ever seen such redness
That cries out far and wide?
It was once a field of blood
And is now a field of poppies."

Israel's remembrance day is symbolised by another seasonal flower, red everlasting. Unlike the bold poppies, this flower is far more modest and far less beautiful, a wiry, fuzzy-stemmed plant tipped with tiny red florets, like drops of blood.

It doesn't form colourful carpets. Walking through the countryside you could easily miss it hiding amongst the season's host of wild grains and thistles. Yet here and there by a path or roadside you might suddenly notice a flash of red swaying in the breeze, and stooping you'll see the humble red everlasting with its wound like flowers.

But I said that the landscape wears its festive best for the spring, not its grimmest, and indeed it does.

The bright pink of our native hollyhocks are the boldest flower of the season. For me they symbolise the springtime holidays, greeting the droves of Israelis on the move, lining the roadsides or standing out in dense meadows of wild grasses, with their columns of huge blooms on shoulder-high stems.

Their lowly ground crawling cousins, the stemless hollyhock, skulk on the grass verges or at the edges of fields. Wild snapdragons in garish fuchsia line cliffsides and roadside wasteland, their joyous colouring shouting that the festivals are upon us once more.

Passover day trips and Independence Day picnics are spent in glorious meadows of cheery sunny field chrysanthemums, huge clusters of them smiling up at vacationing Israelis from every fallow field or wild hillside. On country walks you wade through seas of wild barley, wheat and oats, delicate yellow or pink wild mustard and forests of yellow wild fennel, and wild carrot with its umbrellas of little white flowers. Even the fiercesome thistles are decked out in their holiday best, from magenta to bluish purple.

It's as if the land is celebrating with us.

The other spring flowers with their brighter shades embrace the deep reds of the poppies, softening their bloody hues with an array of colours from purest white to deep purple.

Just as Independence Day is always tinged by the sadness of Memorial Day which precedes it, so the glory of the spring flowers is somehow tempered by the tragic associations of the poppy and the red everlasting. Yet, just as the palette of other flowers incorporates the poppies into a vibrant multicoloured display of joy, so Independence Day gently hugs, then overcomes, the mourning of Memorial Day, leaving it just one part of the diverse whole of Israel's legacy.

And the land itself both mourns with us and celebrates with us.

Monday, April 14, 2003

This Pesah is different

Sunday, April 13, 2003

This year when you sit down to your seder meals and the youngest kid asks, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" make sure to add, "How is this Pesah different from last Pesah?"

Here in Israel I think that we have almost forgotten how much the situation has improved since last spring. We had a sharp reminder a few weeks ago, on Friday March 21, while we were shopping for Shabbat in Jerusalem.

We stopped by a bakery on King George Street to pick up some hallot. The shop is known for its wonderful selection of pastries, especially on Fridays in honour of Shabbat. We were eying the fruit flans, picking out a birthday cake, when one of the salesmen came up to us. "Our cakes are on special today - it's one year since we were blown up by a suicide bomber."

I remembered walking past the wreckage of the bakery on Friday March 22, 2002, one day after a suicide bomber had detonated himself on that very spot. Three Israelis were murdered, including a man from my town, and dozens more were wounded.

Then, such events had become a gruesome routine. In the first three weeks of March 2002, Israelis were being murdered on a daily basis. Some of the worst atrocities of that month included: March 2 - a car bomb in Jerusalem's Beit Yisrael neighbourhood killed 11; March 3 - a sniper killed 10 civilians and soldiers at a checkpoint near Ramallah; March 5 - 3 murdered in an attack on a Tel Aviv restaurant; March 9 - 11 murdered at Jerusalem's Moment cafe; March 12 - terrorists ambush a road in northern Israeli, killing 6 Israeli motorists; March 20 - a bus bombing in northern Israel killed 7; March 24 - 2 Israelis killed by Palestinian snipers, one near Hebron, one near Ramallah; March 26 - two members of the TIPH international observer force murdered by Palestinian snipers near Hebron.

Then as Pesah approached the assault reached a frenzied pace. On March 27 as Israelis were sitting down to their festive seder night dinners a terrorist blew himself up in the dining room of the Park Hotel in Netanya. Twenty-nine people were murdered. The next day four people butchered in the village of Elon Moreh by a terrorist who infiltrated their home. The day after four more Israelis were killed, two in the bombing of a Jerusalem supermarket and two more by terrorists who infiltrated the village of Netzarim. Two days later on March 31 a suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis in a Haifa restaurant.

It was in the context of this carnage that Israel mounted an anti-terror campaign of unprecedented scale, Operation Defensive Shield. During the course of Defensive Shield the Israeli army entered Palestinian controlled towns and villages to shut down terrorist operations.

What a difference a year makes. The Israeli army has controlled the main Palestinian cities for months now, successfully foiling over 90% of attempted terror attacks, confiscating tons of weaponry and explosives, destroying scores of munitions factories and arresting thousands of terrorists. Palestinian terrorists are still trying just as hard to kill us, but thank God the Israeli army is having more success in stopping them.

Looking back, the security problems we face today appear less daunting. Only a year ago it seemed we were doomed to daily terror attacks, sowing destruction throughout the country. Only a year ago the idea of Israeli soldiers moving in to Palestinian towns to go house to house in search of terrorists was almost unthinkable.

Though tragically, the terrorists still sometimes evade our defences with devastating results, Israelis now go about their lives in relative safety. Our lives have still not returned to the way they were before the Palestinians launched this terror war, but in comparison with last year, we have relative normalcy.

The fact that Israelis today were so concerned about the remote possibility of Iraqi missiles is a measure of the Israeli army's success in its campaign against Palestinian terror. We can only pray that Israel will have continued success in its war on terrorism, so that the grim spectres of last March will never again return to Israel's streets.

May you all be blessed with a peaceful, happy and kosher Pesah,

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Trying on gas masks

Wednesday night, March 19, 2003

Just a short note to all of you who've asked what's going on here.

Even though it is highly unlikely that Israel will be affected by the Iraq war, the army has now told everyone to take out their gas mask kits, assemble the mask and filter, try them on and then carry the kit with them at all times.

Certain TV stations are broadcasting instructions from the Home Front Command on how to go about sealing a room and how to put your gas mask together.

We're sitting around sheepishly looking at each other as we try on our gas masks, not quite believing that we're actually doing all this when there is almost 0% chance that these precautions are at all necessary. Seeing each other in these ridiculous looking disguises I burst out laughing. DH kvetched that the whole thing is silly.

I remember as a small child I came across a red rubber, child-sized gas mask that had belonged to my mother during the Second World War. I was fascinated by the thing, tried it on, by a miracle didn't suffocate and took it to school as a novelty. One of the teachers saw what I was playing with and confiscated it from with a horrified shriek. I couldn't understand what her problem was.

I never imagined that one day I would be in a situation where I too would have to carry around my own gas mask as my mother did in wartime London.

These modern Israeli masks are quite heavy, especially with the filters attached. The rubber is pretty uncomfortable, as it has to be strapped tightly to the face to ensure that it's airtight. I find it somewhat claustrophobic. It's just unpleasant to have this sweaty thing stuck to my face, controlling my breathing.

Trying on the masks and testing them, I find myself thinking about the thousands of soldiers out in the Kuwaiti desert who actually have to be able to run around and fully function in them for several hours on end. I found it tough enough just sitting around in one for a few minutes.

Israel is divided up into several geographic areas, each with its own air raid alert system. Although we're equidistant from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, we're technically in the Tel Aviv zone, so if God forbid there should be an air raid siren anywhere in the Tel Aviv area we'll hear it too.

That's pretty much it for now. I've given up on watching TV. If I hear one more "expert" speculate on exactly what's "really" going on in Iraq I think I'll scream. We'll all know soon enough.

Good night

Purim delirium

Wednesday, March 19, 2003
Shushan Purim

Sunday afternoon I saw a four-foot tall Scud missile running down the street chasing a large white two-legged rabbit.

No, I hadn't been drinking.

During the course of the same bus ride through town, I also passed: three angels, a three-foot tall Statue of Liberty, an 11 year old boy in a miniskirt and knee-high kitten-heeled boots, two really big butterflies, some very short policemen, an American Indian chief hand in hand with a cowboy helping him cross the road, and a strawberry munching on a bag of chips.

I had by chance timed my journey just as children were returning home from their school Purim parties.

A few hours later, I heard crowds cheering in the street below. Latin American percussion bands were starting up frenetic carnival beat. A peek from my balcony confirmed: The annual Purim parade was underway!

I scurried down to the main street just in time to see a giant "Srulik" glide down the road on the lead float.

Srulik, a classic Israeli cartoon character, is something of a national symbol, the quintessential boyish Israeli kibbutznik in his shorts, floppy sun hat and open sandals. He shared the float with the Western Wall and the Temple Mount - Judaism's holiest sites.

Behind him, in a sea of Israeli flags, frolicked a tall, beaming Israeli Declaration of Independence flanked by pint sized Israeli folk dancers, dancing orange trees and motley farmers.

Israel may be an urban, hi-tech society, but at heart we're still hora dancing pioneering horticulturalists making the desert bloom.

The theme for our local parade this year was the brotherhood of nations. Each school, youth group or club had chosen a country or culture, marching along with floats representing the different nations.

Hard on the heels of the Israeli float came a squadron of pre-adolescent belly dancers and a local Flamenco troupe, towered over by a 15 foot matador.

Behind them came entire schools - complete with security guards - each decked out in the costume of another nationality: Hula dancers, South Pacific warriors brandishing spears, Italian bakers carrying pizzas, Mexican mariachis in giant sombreros accompanying a float in the shape of a reclining Mexican farmer, Russian peasants and a life-sized Chinese dragon born aloft by pupils and teachers from a local primary school.

One religious school decked out all its pupils and teachers in the traditional white and rainbow striped robes of the Ethiopian Jewish community, in honour of several recent Ethiopian immigrants who've joined the school.

In the spirit of Middle Eastern co-existence, three actors on stilts were dressed up as an Arab in flowing Bedouin robes, a Christian priest replete with giant cross and a black-garbed Hassid. They ambled down the road waving sparklers, pausing now and then for photos with spectators, most of whom were most interested in having their picture taken with the "Bedouin".

The dreamy utopia of a rosy, lovey-dovey Middle East was quite popular. There were hordes of oriental dancers in every shape and form: Turkish, North African, Iraqi, Bedouin inspired and Hollywoodesque genies with diaphanous gauze veils. On the Egyptian float a bride and groom embraced between the Sphinx and the Pyramids.

With all the delirious escapism of Purim though, reality still intruded on the parade.

Police and soldiers, so much a part of everyday life, were also popular costumes. This year though it wasn't just Israeli security forces - I noticed a couple of kids dressed up as American marines.

Americana is always popular here. Two schools chose the United States as their theme, most of them dressed up as cowboys, one bearing an enormous Stars and Stripes, the other accompanied by the Statue of Liberty and Mickey Mouse. The choice said something about what many Israelis admire most about America: on the one hand commercial success and popular culture, on the other self-confident belief in liberty and democracy coupled with unabashed patriotism.

We couldn't escape from Iraq either. A pickup truck carried a makeshift float with a mock scud missile and Saddam himself riding astride it waving at the crowd. Better to laugh at the man than to fear him.

We've spent the last couple of days living with this strange juxtaposition of Purim festivities and news of the impending war. Local radio stations switch between Purim songs and comedy routines with reports about the latest from the Gulf and the latest directives to civilians on how to protect themselves in the event of an Iraqi strike.

The whole thing still feels unreal. The Iraq war scenario has been hanging over us for so long that it's hard to believe it might actually happen.

Today IDF Home Command called on Israelis to prepare a sealed room in case of chemical or biological attack. I just sat there stupidly looking at the TV newsreader and then it hit me. They mean me too. Some jerk in Iraq might decide to lob something at my home. That's crazy. We're so far away from Iraq. It must be a Purim prank.

Most people seem pretty calm though with experts doubtful that Iraq even has the capacity to attack Israel anymore. At the festive Purim meal with relatives, discussion of the looming war only cropped up a couple of times. The main concerns were a) whether Saddam would decide to launch Scuds at us and b) whether he would manage to before the Americans or their allies take western Iraq, the only part of Iraq from which Israel is within missile range. A cousin of mine noted that yesterday's dust storms felt oddly protective, as though no one would be able to find Israel through the high winds and swirling sand.

For Israelis the last Gulf War was the war of masks. It took place during the run-up to Purim, the festival on which Jews wear fancy dress to celebrate how the tables were turned on an enemy who sought to destroy them and was in the end destroyed himself.

In 1991 the war came to a timely end on, coincidentally, Purim eve. Israelis breathed a collective sigh of relief, put away their gas masks and took out their clown suits.

This time round it appears that we'll put our costumes away just in time to take out our gas masks. God willing we won't need them.

Happy Purim!

Thursday, February 20, 2003

Colours of Eilat

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

The clouds and cool breezes added extra magic to the sunset in Eilat last Shabbat. We sat cross-legged on the mostly empty southern beach, not far from the Egyptian border, watching a flock of seagulls lazily swoop and soar over the water. The gentle waves lapped at the shore as the fading light produced a dazzling display of colours.

Through the clear water we could make out each pebble and shell, a mosaic of reds, pinks, greys, greens, browns and blues. Here and there were cauliflower-like fragments of dead coral, washed ashore among the smooth stones.

Across the gulf, the rugged mountains in neighbouring Jordan changed from orange to red to magenta to purple to blue. The clouds above them also metamorphosed, appearing pink above bluish mountains before the sun finally disappeared. Once darkness descended, the full moon turned the clouds to white puffs above ominous grey mountains. Lights twinkled from the cities of Eilat and Aqaba, with the moonlit Red Sea punctuated by the garish neon displays of passing pleasure boats.

A few dozen yards to our right an Israeli Arab family were enjoying a beachfront barbecue at the end of the Muslim Eid Al Adha holiday weekend. From time to time we could hear snippets of darbouka percussion or wailing Arabic song from their boombox.

Down the beach to our left a man was tending to a coffee pot on a little campfire and beyond him a group of youngsters were lounging around a kid with a guitar, humming Israeli rock ballads.

Driving through the Negev desert on the way south, we had been treated to an exceptional display of wildflowers nurtured by the runoff from winter rains. (For the first time in years we've actually had a rainy winter, the way it's supposed to be, hence DH's yearning for Eilat's eternal sun.) The road through the Ramon Crater was particularly lovely, with the rough, rocky browns and oranges of the desert scenery offset by the delicate, cheerful flowers and foliage, a profusion of purple, red, yellow, pink and green.

Just north of Eilat we had stopped at the Hai Bar Nature Reserve, a unique wildlife sanctuary home to species once native to the region in biblical times, but now extinct in the wild. Among the project's achievements is the successful restoration of the Arabian oryx antelope and the onager wild horse to Israel's southern desert. The site was once a major tourist destination offering up-close glimpses of elusive antelope, wild asses, ostriches and nocturnal predators. Sadly, with the economic crisis and the slump in tourism the Hai Bar is due to close at the end of the year unless they can make up the lost revenue. We wanted a chance to bid farewell.

We saw plenty of wildlife outside the reserve too, accompanying a local bird expert in pursuit of a rare eagle recently sighted in the vicinity. Alas, there were no eagles to be found on Eagle Mountain, but I spotted my first Barbary falcon and a charming family of desert gazelle.

The only thing missing from the scenery was that endangered species known as the foreign tourist. Looking for some postcards of Eilat to send foreign relatives, I found several shops with yellowed, old cards. One storekeeper explained that there were so few foreign visitors it was no longer worth his while to restock.

Not long ago, Eilat was a favoured destination for sun-starved northern Europeans. You could hardly move without bumping into Germans, Brits and assorted Scandinavians. This time the only non-Israeli holidaymakers we came across were some local UN and USAID personnel on vacation from their Jerusalem offices, and a family of French Jews.

Such a shame. Away from the terror alerts of central Israel, Eilat would be a perfect place for snowbound Americans and Europeans to come for some R&R, escaping the Orange Alert on the East Coast and the pro-Saddam rallies in the cities. Nothing but quiet beaches, sunny skies, desert mountains, coral reefs and the birds.

As my late grandmother would say, a mechaya.

Friday, February 14, 2003

Southbound for Eilat

Thursday, February 13, 2003

I did a double take this morning when I checked my e-mails. There, in black and white, was a serious request from a friend in New York asking how to seal a room against chemical and biological attacks. Maybe here in Israel we have some kind of special protective plastic sheeting for such purposes? Perhaps I could send her some?

Truth be told, I don't really know how to seal a room against non-conventional weapons. Like all Israeli citizens I have a standard gas mask issued to me by the army. I have a "mamad", a secure room in my apartment, a sort of personal bomb shelter with special rubber airtight seals on the door and window. Following the 1991 Gulf War, such rooms became obligatory in all new apartments. I'm almost done clearing the junk out of my mamad. It's the smallest room in the flat so we use it for storage.

When I told a neighbour that we're going down south for the weekend she jokingly asked whether we knew something she didn't about when the attack on Iraq will begin, that is. She wanted to know whether we'd be taking our gas masks along.

Far from Israel's main population centres, the holiday resort of Eilat at Israel's southern tip is widely held to be the safest place in the country in the event that Saddam Hussein does decide to send some missiles Israel's way, as he did in 1991. Rumour has it that the US embassy has booked a floor of the Dan Hotel there for use if Israel is attacked and the foreign diplomats clear out of Tel Aviv.

Actually, we're heading south not for safety, but for the flowers. And for the birds. And for some nice clear desert air to clear up the colds my husband and I have come down with this week.

Oh, and we're taking the opportunity to go now, before all the guesthouses are booked up by people from the Tel Aviv area fleeing Iraqi missiles.

Any minute now I'm going to get a call from a concerned relative chiding us for not panicking enough. Well yes, we do know what Iraqi Scuds can do. A cousin's apartment was nearly totalled by a missile during the last Gulf War. The residents miraculously escaped harm.

On the other hand I'm personally more concerned with what our devoted Palestinian neighbours are up to. The country is currently on high alert due to a large number of terror warnings. In recent days a number of bombers have been caught en route to Israeli towns. They are certainly a more imminent danger than the possibility of Iraqi missiles.

The Israeli media, though, have been playing up Iraq-related scare stories for months now. They portray us as fleeing overseas, booking up all the guesthouses in the remote southern deserts, buying up world supplies of protective clothing and plastic sheeting, installing special filter systems, hoarding food and inoculating ourselves against smallpox. Household supplies stores are hawking everything from bottled water and battery-operated radios to portable toilets and full-body chemical protection suits.

I have yet to meet anyone doing any of the above, but I guess calm or indifference doesn't sell newspapers.

Today's headlines screamed that we should start hoarding food and water from Saturday. The small print read that those would be the orders from the chief of staff if war broke out.

The papers also report that the US embassy has begun evacuating non-essential personnel and their families, and that Israel's anti-missile batteries have gone on high alert. For what it's worth, that does make war look that much closer, but then again, we've been told that war with Iraq is imminent for at least four months now.

In the meantime I'm going down south to enjoy the winter sunshine and dust storms.

Have a great weekend.

Shabbat shalom.

Saturday, January 04, 2003

Highway of Peace

Friday, January 3, 2003

The air was crisp and cold, smelling of winter, as we arrived in downtown Jerusalem this morning.

In the square outside the Mashbir department store, political activists of various stripes were flaunting their wares: a young man from the left-wing religious Meimad party was trying to sell voters on the wonders of Labour leader Amram Mitzna, while next to him a secular man in a sandwich board with a huge letter "lamed" on it was singing the praises of right-wing candidate Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beitenu party. A young, gormless looking woman in a Tzomet party shirt was hawking her party's rather amorphous platform.

Friday morning is the beginning of the weekend and the eve of the Sabbath, making it the busiest shopping day in Jerusalem. It was a bit cold, but not that cold. There were plenty of pedestrians in the square. No one seemed to take much interest in the campaigners. DH remarked on how lifeless it all seemed compared with previous election years, when passersby would engage the party propagandists in heated debate over the issues of the day.

By the time our errands were finished the clouds were closing in and the rain was falling thick and fast, turning the city's polished stone staircases and squares into treacherous skating rinks. The activists were sheltering under the Mashbir's awning, along with the busker. The Meimad supporter was bopping along to the beat, trying to keep warm.

Turning for home we decided to try a new road, Route 45, opened with rather subdued fanfare this week by a selection of minor dignitaries. So muted was the opening that most of the signs to 45 were still covered over with black plastic sheeting, leading us to wonder whether the new route really was open to traffic.

It was, but the sloppiness about the signs seemed appropriate. Route 45 was a project born out of the heady Oslo years. It was to be the "Highway of Peace", a super modern motorway linking Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Amman and someday, inshallah, Baghdad. It would be the engine of Arab-Israeli friendship, facilitating tourism and trade, a spur for development heralding a new cultural and economic community with open borders along the lines of the European model.

Many in the Modi'in area opposed the route because it was slated to go through Nahal Modi'in, a scenic valley adjacent to an important archaeological site believed by some scholars to encompass the tombs of the Maccabees and ancient Modi'in.

One of the most vociferous opponents was the late Prof. Yair Parag, an esteemed botanist and local resident. I vividly remember a ride with him once from Jerusalem: he spent the entire journey lamenting that in the name of peace the Israeli government would ride roughshod over Israel's ancient Jewish heritage, part of its very raison d'etre. The Oslo architects had their eyes so firmly set on the future it didn't matter if they trampled on the past.

In the end, the Modi'in segment of the road was put on hold and the project was begun from the Jerusalem end, roughly west of Ramallah, linking to the existing Modi'in-Jerusalem highway. This is the section that opened this week, providing a shortcut from central Jerusalem to the Modi'in road, avoiding the bottlenecked north Jerusalem suburb of Ramot.

Route 45 tells the story of the soured Oslo utopia.

Once you leave the brand new Ramot junction for 45, you pass open grassy areas bordering Arab suburbs of Jerusalem. High fences protect the beautiful new road from potential stone throwers. A fenced off dirt shoulder looked to me like a military patrol road.

As the road nears the Palestinian town of Bir Naballah the fences turn to huge fortified concrete walls covered in pastoral murals of green hills and arches. Like the painted walls of the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, these barricades are there to protect Israelis from Palestinian snipers, while the scenic murals are supposed to give at least the illusion of peace.

Beyond the wall, the edge of Bir Naballah is marked by a massive field piled high with hundreds of cars, rusting hulks and fairly new models, tossed about like toys in a messy child's bedroom. Here was another reminder of what the new "economic freedom" and "open borders" of Oslo had actually brought: a massive rise in Palestinian theft of cars from Israel and a consequent roaring Palestinian trade in bootleg auto parts. Palestinian dignitaries were routinely stopped driving stolen Israeli vehicles, which had been relicensed by a complicit Palestinian Authority.

It reminded me of a visit to the Palestinian controlled city of Nablus/Shekhem in 1999. As our group neared the town we passed field after field of cars, auto parts and related junk. The Palestinian guide pointed to the eyesore and joked, "If any of you have had your cars stolen, this is a great place to look..." We smiled as if it was funny.

So much has changed since them. Scepticism about the prospects for peace is no longer limited to an ideological minority. It has become the broad national consensus. Many wonder why the signs of Palestinian ill will, from the rampant car theft to the weapons smuggling to the inflammatory speeches endorsing violence towards Israel, were ignored for so long. Today, few Israelis believe in our politicians' promises of peace and security. No leaders inspire much enthusiasm.

None of the candidates seems likely to bring peace any more than Route 45 is to reach Amman, let alone Baghdad.

Maybe that's why the activists in Mashbir Square were so lonely.

Shabbat shalom.