November 8, 2000 Update

Letters from Israel


Wednesday, November 8, 2000

Dear Family and Friends,

The lead story in Israel today is overwhelmingly the American elections. The continuing Palestinian attacks have been pushed further down the news broadcasts over the last few days. This is less because things have quieted down, though they have somewhat, and more because shootings, stonings and firebombings have now become routine unless someone is killed, God forbid. Otherwise, the day's events are summarised in a brief update. For those whose communities continue to come under attack night after night, this waning attention must be very frustrating. But in Israel's main population centres, their troubles seem a world away.

Among the targets of Palestinian gunfire have been civilian cars and buses. This morning an Israeli woman was killed and her passenger, her nephew, wounded when their car was shot at on their way to work at the Rafiah border terminal between Israel and Egypt. The woman lost control of the car and it overturned into a ditch, trapping the occupants. The bullet-riddled car and its wounded occupants were discovered and the emergency services notified by a passing Israeli civilian who works at a bank at the border terminal. The ambush took place close to the Palestinian airport at Dahania, which Israel had yesterday allowed to reopen after closing it due to threats to Israeli personnel working there. Israel has reclosed the airport and the Rafiah border crossing in response to the killing.

Pinhas Levin and Omra Raven of Ma'aleh Levonah were injured Sunday night in a drive-by shooting not far from their home as they drove past a Palestinian village. Levin was seriously hurt in his legs and hip. Raven, a mother of 11, suffered minor wounds and was released from hospital Monday afternoon. Raven's husband is a paramedic and discovered that his wife had been injured when he and other emergency teams rushed to the scene. Raven said that she was amazed to be alive after intense gunfire ripped into the car, leaving 30 bullet holes. In an interview Monday evening the couple described how they do their best to live normally under the circumstances, going to work, sending the kids to school and not allowing the gunmen to succeed in intimidating them. They noted that they met in Lebanon, and that while Israel may have pulled out of Lebanon, events indicate that the Palestinians have brought Lebanon to Israel.

Among the Jewish communities to be targeted by Palestinian gunfire in the last few days: Hebron's Jewish Quarter, Psagot near Ramallah, Bet Haggai near Hebron, Nitzanei Oz near Tulkarm, Nahal Elisha near Jericho, Kadim and Ganim near Jenin, Jewish communities in Gaza including Kfar Darom and Neveh Dekalim. Military posts and checkpoints have come under Palestinian gunfire near Elon Moreh, Beit El, Susia, Tulkarm, Ariel and Kalkilya, and throughout Gaza. An attack on the Israeli checkpost on the road from Palestinian-controlled Kalkilya to Israel resulted in the closing of the road to the nearby Israeli village of Eyal, close to the town of Kokhav Yair where Prime Minister Barak lives.

Israeli civilians have also been injured in shootings near Jericho and Yitzhar. Yesterday there was another attack on an Israeli schoolbus in Gaza, this time near the Jewish village of Kfar Darom; fortunately no one was hurt. In addition, in Gaza and the Hebron area there have been several roadside bombs which have been detonated by remote control when Israeli vehicles drive past. Palestinian rock throwing continues in many areas. Just Monday night an Israeli civilian was hurt when a rock hit his car on the main Modi'in-Jerusalem road via Beit Horon.

There have also been more attacks on Israeli orchards and greenhouses in Jewish villages bordering Palestinian-controlled areas. The cherry orchards of Kibbutz Ramat Rahel in southern Jerusalem were vandalised with trees uprooted or slashed. In Ro'i, north of Jericho, there have been repeated assaults on the community's hothouses where they grow herbs. Yesterday Ro'i farmers said that their entire year's crop had been destroyed, with plants trampled or uprooted, irrigation systems cut and plastic sheeting on hothouses slashed. Arabic graffiti on one greenhouse read, 'Allah will win'. Farmers expressed shock that their Palestinian neighbours could do such things. They had previously enjoyed peaceful relations with local Palestinian villages, employing many of their residents in the farms of Ro'i.

Similar incidents have taken place in Vered Yeriho south of Jericho, with orchards uprooted, greenhouses smashed and irrigation hoses cut. In addition, some of the fields belonging to two Vered Yeriho farmers can be accessed only via areas handed over to the Palestinians under the Oslo Accords. The agreements guarantee Israeli farmers access to their crops, but during the current troubles it has become too dangerous. Local Palestinian authorities have made it clear that any Jew entering the Palestinian-controlled Jericho area will not leave alive. Gershon Richter, one of the farmers affected, says he has been left with no income and with his life's work in ruins. Not only were his fields sabotaged, but he has no access to them to repair the damage or to tend what remains.

In a new type of attack, possibly inspired by the bombing of the USS Cole near Yemen, a booby-trapped fishing boat exploded Monday night near an Israeli patrol ship off the Gaza coast. The bomb went off too far away to cause damage or injuries, but reports say the explosion was powerful and could have been devastating. The fishing boat was coming from across the Egyptian border, but it's not clear who was behind the attack.

A Syrian infiltrator armed with knives climbed over Israel's border fence Monday morning and was on the loose in the southern Golan Heights for about twelve hours. Jewish communities in the area were under curfew during the manhunt. Such infiltrations are very rare; the Golan is one of Israel's quietest borders. Army trackers traced the infiltrator to the area between the villages of Nov and Avnei Eitan. The man, who was finally captured near the kibbutz of Lahavot Habashan, said he had crossed the border in order to help the Palestinians with their intifada.

Rachel's Tomb, the Jewish holy site on the northern outskirts of Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem which has been a Jewish pilgrimage site for centuries, has been closed to worshipers since the Palestinian attacks began five weeks ago. The site is under Israeli control according to the agreements with the Palestinians, and has been the constant target of Palestinian riots and sniper attacks. Remarks in the Palestinian media have indicated that they aim to force Israel to abandon the site, as happened with Joseph's Tomb in Nablus / Shekhem.

As tomorrow (Thursday) is the anniversary of Rachel's death, calls have been heard to open the site at least for the day, a traditional occasion for special prayers there since the site was restored to Jewish control in 1967. Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau has been among those calling for access to the tomb to be restored. On Monday, a group of thirty Jewish women and children from Hebron met in Gilo in southern Jerusalem and walked towards Rachel's Tomb, just 500 metres (yards) away. When they arrived, the befuddled Israeli soldiers guarding the site weren't sure how to respond, and let the group enter. Some of the women decided they would camp out there until Thursday to make sure it would be open to visitors for the memorial day. The Israeli police and army believed it would be unsafe to let civilians stay there overnight, and a few hours later sent troops to forcibly evacuate them, baby buggies and all. The act of protest had its desired effect, though, and it has been decided that Rachel's Tomb will be open on Thursday after all.

Heavy gunfire resumed last night at the southern Jerusalem neighbourhood of Gilo after several days of quiet. Palestinian gunmen directed machine gun fire at southern streets of Gilo from the nearby Palestinian-controlled towns of Beit Jalla and Bethlehem. The Israeli army returned fire with automatic weapons and anti-tank missiles targeted at the sources of the gunfire. The pause in attacks at Gilo over the last few days has been attributed to a secret Cairo meeting over the weekend between Avi Dichter, head of Israel's General Security Services, and Jibril Rajoub, head of preventive security for the Palestinian Authority, at which Rajoub pledged to stop the gunfire towards Gilo. It has been suggested that the renewed gunfire is a Palestinian attempt to reverse by violence the Israeli decision to reopen Rachel's Tomb to worshipers on Thursday.

While things have been slightly quieter lately, this is clearly not the ceasefire that we were promised at the beginning of last week. The Tanzim militias claim that they have not received orders from Arafat to halt their attacks, and indeed many of the shooting attacks have been carried out by uniformed Palestinian police and security forces. There is no indication that they have received orders to "lower the flames". Still, Israel is cooperating with the American efforts to set up an international "fact-finding commission" to investigate recent events, even though the commission was to begin operation only after the ceasefire was in effect.

Now that the American elections are over, the months from now until the January inauguration may be difficult for Israel diplomatically. President-elect Bush (assuming he survives the Florida recount) won't want to have to deal with messes overseas right away, while Clinton will no longer have electoral considerations to restrict his actions. Both might be satisfied for Clinton to take advantage of the interval to put pressure on Israel to compromise its positions. That way Bush will have certain decisions out of the way without having to take responsibility for the consequences. Something similar happened in 1988, when the Reagan administration, over the objections of the Israeli government, opened an unprecedented dialogue with the PLO after the November elections, having quietly consulted with the incoming Bush administration. The difficult situation Israel is now in could become even more difficult until January 20.

There is much more to be said but time is short now. Maybe next time.



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Copyright 2000 by Leiah Elbaum.