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.