Sunday, March 03, 2002

Beit Yisrael bombing

Sunday, March 3, 2002

It's only 7:45am and already nine Israelis have been killed this morning and several more seriously wounded in two attacks in the last hour.
I woke at about 6:45 this morning, after a sound night's sleep, tired out by a busy but beautiful Shabbat spent with friends visiting from Jerusalem. I lay in bed for a bit, enjoying the bright sun streaming in through the partially open shutters and the exuberant bird song from the garden below.
Then the radio alarm came on, bringing back the horror of last night's events. We had been clearing up from seu'dah shlishit, the last meal of the Sabbath. Our guests were packing up their things and getting their kids ready to go home. We were still enjoying the tranquility of Shabbat and had not turned on the TV or radio to catch up on the weekend news. Jason put on a CD of verses from Song of Songs set to music. We tidied up humming along to the joyous melodies.
I sat down in the armchair for a minute to collect some toys which had fallen underneath. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flickering TV screen in the apartment across from us. It showed flames licking around a car. I commented to Jason that our neighbours seemed to have the news on. Reluctantly we switched on our set. A street map flashed onto our screen. Another attack. Hayim Ozer Street. But was it Hayim Ozer Street in Petah Tikva or Jerusalem?
Hayim Ozer Street - in the Beit Yisrael neighbourhood of Jerusalem. Sadly Jason went to let our guests know that there had been another attack. They came and joined us around the TV, numbly watching the agony unfold before us.
The map flashed up on the screen again and the wife commented that she worked just down the road from there. I remembered getting lost in those narrow tortuous streets a couple of years ago driving to the annual Hebrew Book Week fair.
I've often taken visitors from abroad for walks around that old Jerusalem neighbourhood with its population of deeply traditional religious Jews, every other building a synagogue or yeshiva. The old Jerusalem vividly portrayed in some of the most well known stories by Nobel laureate novelist S.Y. Agnon.
I remember walking here a few years ago when I was working as a research assistant to a professor writing a modern history of Jerusalem. In the heart of the neighbourhood the images look as though they have changed little since Agnon described them in the early twentieth century.
On the neighbourhood's edge some buildings still have narrow slit windows and metal shutters, leftovers from the time when a volatile armistice line ran along that street, and snipers from Jordanian occupied Jerusalem would shoot across the road into the Israeli homes on the other side. Since Jerusalem was re-unified in 1967 this area has for the most part been quiet. Yet it remains close to several Arab neighbourhoods, and only last year a car bomb was detonated on this very same street, Hayim Ozer. Then miraculously no one was hurt. Last night the miracles ran out.
And now it is just another place name added to the ever growing list of diverse names whose mere mention evoke the same images of death and destruction.
At the bottom of the picture a box updates us with the ever rising number of dead and wounded. At that stage in the evening it simply read several killed and tens of wounded. By evening's end it read nine dead and over 50 wounded.
A live linkup with Palestinian Ramallah showed throngs celebrating in the streets. Old men and youngsters, middle aged women and teenaged girls, their faces beaming with the news of the attack in Jerusalem. The camera zoomed in on a section of the crowd, an elderly woman in an embroidered Palestinian dress whooping with joy at the news that Israeli civilians had been killed.
We were still recovering from last night when at 7:05 this morning there was more bad news. Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a line of cars at a checkpoint north of Ramallah.
I remember going through that checkpoint last year and thinking that it was the perfect place for an ambush - a narrow road with steep cliffs towering over it on either side and a long line of vehicles snaking through the checkpoint, slowing for inspection. I was on a bullet proof bus, en route to visit friends in the nearby Jewish village of Shiloh. Most of the vehicles around us were regular cars. A couple of terrorists on one of the cliffs could have done a lot of damage. This morning they did. Nine dead and six wounded.
None of us needed to see the television reports, we know them too well. First the panic of initial unclear reports, then the map on the screen, as they pinpoint where the attack has taken place. A while later the first footage from the site itself, the carnage still apparent on the blood spattered street, the wounded still being ferried away in fleets of waiting ambulances, the men from the burial society collecting pieces of flesh and blood soaked clothing for burial.
Then come reports from the hospitals, the interviews with the walking wounded, the interviews with the hospital spokesmen, the interview with the first medic on the scene, the interview with the local chief of police. The station Arab affairs correspondent reports on the first claims of responsibility from the various Palestinian terror groups, maybe footage from Arab TV stations about how they are covering the attacks.
And so it goes, month after month, sometimes week after week and day after day. We are all experts now, we know it all off by heart, only the numbers change, and sometimes also the places.
As of 8:15am this morning the numbers are 20 dead Israelis and about 70 wounded in thirteen hours of attacks.
Somehow we still manage the traditional post-Sabbath greeting, have a good week, may it be a good week. Please God let it be a better week.

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