November 2-3, 2000 Update

Letters from Israel


Thursday, November 2, 2000

I don't know if this has made the international news, but a car bomb went off about 20 minutes ago in Jerusalem on a narrow side street near the Mahane Yehuda market. Reports are so far 9 wounded, 7 of which are lightly wounded and 2 dead, most probably the terrorists themselves.

It appears that the terrorists were planning to bomb the busy Mahane Yehuda market, but police noticed a suspicious vehicle and gave chase and the terrorists tried to get away by driving down a narrow side street where the bomb went off. Thank God the bomb exploded in this side street, lined on either side with the thick stone walls of tradtional Jerusalem buildings which absorbed the blast and prevented a major tragedy.

The Mahane Yehuda market is Jerusalem's main food and produce market and on a typical Thursday afternoon it is at it's most crowded with people from all over the Jerusalem area doing their pre-Sabbath shopping trips.

Just want to let you know that we're all fine.


Friday, November 3, 2000

Dear Family and Friends,

We went to bed late Wednesday night with the determined statements of Israeli leaders resonating in our ears. Following the killing of three Israeli soldiers in fierce Palestinian attacks Wednesday, the cabinet met in special session to authorise the army to launch counterstrikes against strategic Palestinian targets. Commentators spoke of the escalation in Palestinian attacks, and it looked like Thursday would be another difficult day.

By the time we woke up, the prognosis had been reversed. Some sort of ceasefire understandings had been reached at a late night / early morning meeting in Gaza. Cabinet minister Shimon Peres and senior Barak aide Gilad Sher agreed with Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat to make another attempt at implementing the ceasefire arrangements brokered two weeks ago at the Sharm a-Sheikh summit - arrangements Arafat never bothered to implement the first time. Among the first steps, Israel was to withdraw its army from strategic positions near Palestinian-controlled areas which it had moved to in response to the Palestinian attacks. Then, a joint announcement was to be made at 2pm, when Barak and Arafat were to separately issue identically-worded statements calling for an end to violence.

Some Israeli experts said they believed the Palestinians were running low on ammunition, as indicated by a shift in their firing patterns. They used to shoot almost at random, spraying gunfire in all directions; lately, they have been firing more precisely and, unfortunately, more effectively. They have also been refraining from ceremonial gunfire at funerals and demonstrations, as well as the traditional celebratory gunfire at weddings. The ammunition situation may explain their readiness to accept a ceasefire, though it also calls into question Israel's judgment in seeking one. Lifting the blockade on Palestinian towns may facilitate their restocking on ammunition and other weapons.

Israel carried out its side of the bargain early in the morning, repositioning its tanks and lifting the blockade in place around some Palestinian cities. Meanwhile, attacks on Israeli targets continued, though at a lower intensity than in recent days. Palestinians attacked the holy site of Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem with stones and firebombs, and rioted in the village of Hizmeh near the Jerusalem suburb of Pisgat Ze'ev.

At the Karni crossing between Palestinian-controlled Gaza and Israel, Israeli troops fulfilled the ceasefire terms by relinquishing to the Palestinian police a position overlooking a main road into Gaza. Before long, Palestinian rioters stormed the road, attacking the Israeli checkpoint with rocks and firebombs, while the Palestinian police looked on from their new strategic position and even assisted them. A group of 90 rioters tried to push down the Gaza perimeter fence and break through into Israel. The road, the only access route to the Jewish village of Netzarim in Gaza, came under complete control of the Palestinian police and the street gangs. Netzarim has been under siege; residents and supplies can come and go only via army helicopter. This is apparently Israel's repayment for honouring the ceasefire.

Palestinians also rioted near the Jewish village of Neveh Dekalim on Gaza's southern coast and tried to push over the village's perimeter fence. In an attempt to honour the ceasefire, Israeli soldiers responded only with tear gas. Uniformed Palestinian police, however, shot at an Israeli army patrol near Neveh Dekalim, just minutes before the ceasefire declarations were to be issued.

From the start, it was not clear what the ceasefire terms entailed. Dr. Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab (he considers himself to be a "Palestinian citizen of Israel"), a member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, and a former advisor to Yasser Arafat, said he thought the ceasefire just called for the Palestinians to stop shooting, but that they have every right to continue with their rock throwing revolt, which he termed "popular demonstrations of rage". This man, who sits in the Israeli parliament, votes on and proposes legislation, defends the right of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to continue attacking Israeli Jews.

At about 3 pm, with the Israeli media on standby for the announcements, which had been delayed for unclear reasons, the bomb went off near Jerusalem's busy Mahane Yehuda street market. At the time of writing yesterday it wasn't clear who the dead were. We now know that the terrorists escaped and the two bodies were those of innocent bystanders. One victim was 28-year-old Ayelet Hashahar Levi, daughter of Rabbi Yitzhak Levi, head of the National Religious Party. She has just moved to Jerusalem and was moving into an apartment on the street on which the bomb went off. The other victim, 34-year-old lawyer Hanan Levi (no relation), worked in the Klal office building across the street and was caught in the explosion on his way back from lunch. The number of injured now stands at 11, mostly minor wounds. Among the wounded were a woman who lives near the site of the bombing, and her 3 grandchildren, who were staying with her in the centre of town where they felt they would be safer than at home in the neighbourhood of Gilo, which has come under Palestinian gunfire in recent weeks.

The Palestinian news media didn't bother reporting on the Jerusalem bombing, just as they never ran the gruesome videotape of the lynching of the Israeli soldiers in Ramallah two weeks ago, or the ransacking of Joseph's Tomb. With this kind of portrayal of the Israeli position, it's no wonder they accuse us of being the aggressors. All they ever see is reports of Israeli counterattacks, but not the Palestinian attacks Israel is responding to. Meanwhile, Palestinian television and radio continued to play songs glorifying war, while encouraging people to continue what they now call the "Intifada for Peace" - their term for attacking Israeli positions with rocks and firebombs.

What had happened with the ceasefire announcements? Apparently the two sides were far from agreed on the content and form of the declarations. Israeli sources said they were expecting personal appeals by Barak and Arafat, on both radio and television, in which they would call for violence to cease without engaging in recriminations. Arafat apparently refused to make a television appearance. The announcements were delayed from 2pm to 4pm, and then to 6pm. Israel was apparently willing to settle for a radio announcement by Arafat, but this was not forthcoming either. The Palestinians indicated that while they were willing issue a statement calling on Israel to stop the violence, they would not call on their own people to do so. In the morning the Palestinian Authority had issued a faxed statement in that spirit, calling on the "Intifada for Peace" to continue - meaning rocks and firebombs - while blaming Israel for the violence. The Palestinians said that this statement should be sufficient, that they would issue no further such statements, and that they were waiting for Israel's announcement. By the end of the day Israeli leaders were saying that what mattered was not the announcement but the implementation. Essentially, Israel had already given up on the Palestinians' first ceasefire commitment. The ceasefire understandings had collapsed before they had even started.

Implementation of the ceasefire, though, was almost nonexistent. Not long after the bombing in Jerusalem, explosive devices were thrown at Israeli patrols in Hebron and frenzied rioting was reported at the Ayosh junction near Ramallah. By the late afternoon the by now 'usual' Palestinian evening shooting attacks were in progress: heavy gunfire directed at the Jewish village of Psagot east of Ramallah, which has been shot at almost every night since Rosh Hashana, and shooting at the Jewish communities of Gush Katif in Gaza. Palestinian gunmen also opened fire on the Israeli side of the Palestinian-Israel liason office in Bethlehem. By 7pm Palestinian snipers had resumed their nightly assault on the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo and by 8pm they were also shooting at Rachel's Tomb, at the Jewish communities of Brakha and Kfar Darom and at the Jewish Tel Rumeida neighbourhood in Hebron. A Jewish couple were injured when their car was shot at on the main road not far from the Jewish town of Ma'aleh Efraim. A firebomb was thrown at a civilian bus near the Jewish village of Shavei Shomron, west of Nablus/Shekhem. In total there were 18 Palestinian shooting attacks yesterday, not exactly the sort of 'ceasefire' we were hoping for, though not quite as bad as the night before.

Overall, life here continues to be unpleasantly eventful. I have accumulated a list of incidents which seemed important at the time, but which I haven't had a chance to mention because they have been overshadowed by other events. For example, on most nights this week firebombs or rocks have been thrown at vehicles on roads near Arab villages in the southern Galilee. Herut Lapid, a prisoners' rights activist who has been defending Arab asylum seekers in Israeli courts, was returning home from a court hearing in Jerusalem to his kibbutz in northern Israel this week when his car was hit by rocks near the Palestinian-controlled village of Ouja. The windshield was smashed, leaving a gaping hole. "It's lucky we weren't going faster, since we would have lost control of the car and been killed," he said.

Among the overshadowed events was another bomb which went off in Jerusalem Wednesday evening. A pipe bomb exploded near the Jerusalem Theatre in the heart of a residential neighbourhood. Two people were injured, though fortunately the street was mostly empty at the time of the explosion.

On Channel 2 television the other night, we were treated to an interview with Palestinian children, no older than 10 or 12, who were filling bottles with petrol. "What's that?" asked the Arabic-speaking reporter. "Molotov cocktails," responded the kids. "What are you going to do with them?" "Throw them at the Jews, the Jews!" "Aren't you afraid?" "We're not afraid. They're dogs!"

One of Jason's co-workers commutes from the northern port city of Haifa. One day this week said morning traffic had been a mess due to security roadblocks on the highway. He said he heard from a friend that there was a major security alert in Haifa. A terrorist with explosives was believed to be loose in the city preparing a major attack, God forbid. Security was at a maximum throughout the city and surroundings. Apparently, word had gotten out, because people in Haifa were staying at home. Shopping malls and other public places were virtually empty. Thursday's paper reported that a suspect, a resident of Gaza, had been arrested in Nazareth, though no explosives were recovered and security forces remain on high alert. This story was carried on page 22.

In local news, the Modi'in area continues to be quiet for the most part, even though we are also very close to Palestinian areas. The main difference, from what I can see, is that the Palestinian-controlled areas we border are what is known as Area B, which means that the Palestinian Authority is in charge of civilian affairs but security is still in the hands of the Israeli army. This means we don't have Palestinian police and their gunmen stationed just a kilometre or less from here, though from time to time rock-wielding Palestinian civilians have attacked Israeli vehicles passing near their villages, causing a number of injuries.

The Palestinian village of Beit Sira borders the Israeli town of Makkabim, a neighbour of Modi'in. Youths from Beit Sira have thrown rocks and tied burning tires to the Makkabim perimeter fence, and have attacked passing cars on the road which passes between Makkabim and Beit Sira. They have also stood outside Makkabim yelling threats about how they are going to kill all the Jews.

We also discovered recently that one of the perpetrators of the lynch in Ramallah, the man seen in the infamous picture waving his bloody hands to the crowd and smiling, lives in the nearby Palestinian village of Beit Likia, a neighbour of Beit Sira. Like Beit Sira, its residents work and shop in the nearby Jewish towns of the Modi'in region.

Many Israelis, especially those in areas bordering Palestinian-controlled regions, say they feel like sitting ducks. The term comes up time and again in interviews with ordinary citizens, whether in Gilo, Gaza, Vered Yeriho or even central Jerusalem. People feel they're expected to sit still and be shot at, stoned and bombed, while our government looks for ways to resume negotiations and offer more concessions to the people attacking us. Our leaders are afraid of striking back for fear of being portrayed again as the 'aggressors' against 'defenseless civilians'.

In contrast, the Palestinians seem to have become more brazen. Today, during midday Friday prayers at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount, Palestinian flags were flown over the mosque during the services, a regular phenomenon in recent weeks. What was different today was the addition of flags of the Hamas and Hizbullah Islamic movements, organisations which proudly oppose Israel's right to exist and perpetrate terror attacks. By flying their flags, worshipers explicitly threaten Israelis, expressing their support for terrorist acts and their unwillingness to consider negotiations and compromise. Palestinian religious leaders have led the call for Muslims everywhere to attack Israelis and Jews wherever they may be. Every Friday after midday services, crowds of Palestinian worshipers stream out of their mosques, fired up by virulently anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sermons, ready to attack Israelis. This religious war is evident in attacks on Jewish holy sites and archaeological sites as well. It's hard to see how this religious enmity can be moderated by any conceivable political agreements.

I don't know how this is going to end. Arafat's track record shows that he's broken every ceasefire agreement he's every made and used the truce to improve his strategic position. Maybe we just have to wait for the Palestinians to run out of ammunition.

Shabbat Shalom,



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Copyright 2000 by Leiah Elbaum.