November 20, 2000 Update

Letters from Israel


Monday, November 20, 2000

Dear Family and Friends,

This morning we in Israel woke up to the terrible news that the Palestinians finally succeeded in blowing up an Israeli schoolbus in Gaza, killing two Israeli civilians and wounding 9 others, including 5 children. The Palestinians have been planting Lebanon-style remote controlled roadside bombs on the roads in Gaza for weeks now, but by a miracle no Israelis had been killed or seriously injured, though there were several very close calls. This morning, as Noga Cohen, the mother of three of the wounded children said, "the miracles ran out." The powerful bomb, which incorporated a large artillery shell and a gas canister, was detonated just after the bus had picked up schoolchildren and teachers in Kfar Darom en route to school in Gush Katif, a Jewish area of Gaza. The blast was so forceful that pieces of shrapnel ripped through one side wall of the reinforced bus and went straight out the other side of the bus. Most of the injuries were to people's legs and torsos.

The dead are Miriam Amitai, a 35-year-old mother of four from Kfar Darom who taught at the girls high school in Gush Katif, and Gavriel Biton, a 34-year-old father of six, also from Kfar Darom, a maintenance worker at the school. Only last week Biton narrowly escaped injury when Palestinians fired bullets into his bedroom and living room.

Among the seriously injured are three siblings: Tehilla Cohen aged 8, her brother Yisrael aged 7 and her sister Orrit aged 12. All of them had to undergo amputations. Orrit, who lost part of her leg, is due to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah next month. At the time of writing (11:30 pm), Tehilla is still undergoing surgery which began at 9:00 this morning, as doctors fight to save her legs. Two years ago, the three narrowly escaped injury in a similar attack when Palestinian gunmen attacked two Kfar Darom schoolbuses. Their older brother Avraham was late for the bus this morning, saving him from today's attack, after two weeks ago he had narrowly missed injury in a similar schoolbus bombing. Two other children and four adults were injured, including a pregnant woman and the bus driver.

The official Palestinian Authority reaction said they oppose "all forms of violence," but denied responsibility for the attack and declined to condemn it. Meanwhile, several Palestinian organisations rushed to claim 'credit' for the bombing. Israeli intelligence presented the government with clear evidence that members of the Fatah Tanzim militia, a group indirectly under Arafat's command, were in fact responsible. The Israeli cabinet met for three hours to discuss plans for what was called 'a strong response'. This evening, Israeli helicopters and patrol boats fired missiles at nine Palestinian Authority military targets across Gaza. Targets included the headquarters of the Palestinian Navy, of Arafat's Force 17 presidential guard, of the Tanzim militias and of Mohammed Dahlan's Preventive Security Forces, one of whose officers carried out a fatal attack on an Israeli guard post in Kfar Darom on Saturday.

On Saturday morning Baha Said, a senior officer in Mohammed Dahlan's Preventive Security Forces, infiltrated Kfar Darom by digging under the perimeter fence and making his way through the greenhouses to the guard post. There he opened fire from close range on the Israeli soldiers who were changing over shifts, killing 21 year old Sgt Barukh Snir Flum of Tel Aviv and seriously wounding his comrade Sharon Shitubi, also 21, of Ramle, who today died of his wounds. Other soldiers returned fire killing the assailant. Fatah leaders praised Said, who was a member of the Fatah Hawks militia, as a hero and a martyr'.

Just the day before Arafat, for the first time, made a public call on Palestinian radio and TV for his people to stop shooting - but just from areas under full Palestinian control, in particular from populated areas. Once again our hopes were raised that maybe, just maybe this time the Palestinians meant it. Israeli commentators were quick to pick up on what the statement didn't say. The implication was that it was OK to continue and even escalate attacks targeted against areas under Israeli jurisdiction, such as the main roads and the Jewish communities bordering Palestinian areas. Attacks such as last week's fatal drive-by shooting and today's bus bombing took place in areas under full Israeli control adjacent to Palestinian controlled zones. Other explanations for Arafat's statement may be that the Palestinians are running low on ammunition.

The Israeli media went on and on about the decline in attacks on Saturday and Sunday, and once again there were serious discussions about when and where negotiations might resume, with Israeli government leaders indicating that if the "decline" in attacks continued Israel would be prepared to return to negotiations at the point at which the Palestinians broke them off at Camp David this summer. In the wake of this decrease in attacks the Israeli army yesterday reopened the Kfar Darom junction to Palestiniann traffic, the same road on which this morning's fatal bus bombing took place.

In certain areas there was a decline in the number of attacks, but not in their ferocity. This is what counts as a "decline" in attacks: yesterday (Sunday) and last night Palestinian gunmen shot at Psagot, at various Israeli towns and army positions in Gaza, at a border guard base near Tulkarem east of Netanya and at a patrol near the Jewish village of Ofra north of Jerusalem. Jewish vehicles were attacked by Palestinian snipers near the Karni crossing and Netzarim in Gaza, between Kalkilya and Alfei Menashe and in a drive-by shooting near Na'aleh and Talmon, north-east of Modi'in. Israeli buses were firebombed by Palestinians near the Jewish village of Shiloh, north of Ramallah and in the Jordan Valley, near Jericho. Five Israeli civilians were injured in rock throwing attacks on Israeli vehicles. Palestinians rioted in various parts of Gaza and the West Bank. To cap it all off, yesterday morning the Israeli vice consul in Amman, Jordan, was shot and wounded in a drive by shooting near his home in the Jordanian capital.

Time and again reporters ask residents of places which have come under repeated attack, such as Kfar Darom and Gilo, why they don't just pick up and leave. 'Don't your children ask you why you stay in such a dangerous place?' they ask. There is something sickening about this ritual. It's not the first time Israeli towns have been attacked. For decades the Jewish villages along the border with Lebanon have suffered cross-border attacks. Before the 1967 Six Day War the Israeli towns bordering Gaza, Jordanian-held sectors of Jerusalem, and many areas of the West Bank suffered regular sniping and shelling, along with terrorist infiltrations. In the 1948 War many Jewish villages were besieged by enemy troops, but their residents held firm until either Israel triumphed, or, in places such as Kfar Darom and Kfar Etzion, they were overrun by Arab forces. Had Israelis run away every time their homes were attacked, there would be no state of Israel today. The determination to stand firm, to protect Jewish homes and the Jewish homeland, is what has enabled Israel to survive all these years. Residents of Kfar Darom, which was rebuilt after Israel retook Gaza in the 1967 war, are particularly determined to stay put, rather than once again be driven out by the enemy.

Yossi Hadad, whose greenhouses in Kfar Darom were the scene of Saturday's Palestinian attack, today suffered another tragedy, when his daughter Rahel was wounded in the schoollbus bombing. Sure enough, reporters asked him, "Aren't you afraid? Why don't you leave? Don't you children want to leave?" He responded, "I didn't hear about Tel Avivians running away when Dizengoff [a major shopping centre] was bombed.... My daugher Rahel knows why we live here. She knows about Zionism and Israel. She knows why her grandparents came from Tunis and the USA to live in this land."

On a positive note, last week the Israeli army arrested fifteen Tanzim gunmen who have been responsible for recent sniping attacks, including last week's fatal drive-by shooting of Israeli civilians near Neveh Tzuf. Over recent days the army has also successfully defused several roadside bombs similar to the one which went off this morning.

Meanwhile, Arab citizens of Israeli continue to undergo a public identity crisis. Many of the Israeli Arab members of Knesset and other community leaders continue to express their support for the Palestinian revolt. Knesset Member Mohammed Barakeh actually called on the Arab citizens of Israel to join in the intifada. There continue to be sporadic rock throwing attacks against Jewish vehicles near certain Arab villages in the Galilee, especially in the Wadi 'Ara/Nahal 'Iyron area which is close to Palestinian-controlled areas.

Over recent nights, youths from the Arab village of Arabeh in the Galilee have ambushed Jewish vehicles driving near their village. Last Tuesday, several residents of Arabeh came to the aid of the Jewish victims. In return, their property was vandalised and some were beaten up. The Jewish head of the Misgav regional council was quick to assert that the youths causing trouble in Arabeh are a minority, that police and local residents know who they are, and that the troublemakers will be arrested. However, police say the local Arab leadership is not cooperating fully in efforts to calm the situation.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited by some Israeli friends to join them on a visit to an Israeli Arab village not far from here, the first time since the troubles began that I've been to an Israeli Arab village. In more peaceful times I had visited this village on a few occasions to shop in local stores, just as I would visit a Israeli Jewish village. Strangely though, despite the recent violence I did not feel overly worried about visiting this village, even though it was the scene of rioting only a few weeks earlier. On that Sunday it was quiet. No other Jewish Israelis ventured into the village, and locals told us that business is suffering terribly, as customers from local Jewish towns and villages are the prime markets for local stores. What struck me most though was the 'Palestinianisation' of the town. I noticed a number of Palestinian flags and nationalist graffiti.

Some local women invited us to join them for coffee. In the course of our conversation I sensed confusion about their place in the region. On the one hand much of their leadership was encouraging them to identify as Palestinians and to support the Palestinian revolt. On the other hand they are citizens of Israel, paying taxes to and receive services from the state of Israel. They work with Jews and use medical and other facilities in nearby Jewish towns. They themselves seemed stunned by the ferocity with which Israeli Arab youths had rioted in sympathy with the Palestinians. That evening on the news I heard a speech by the mayor of the same village, supporting the intifada and Yasser Arafat in the name of the residents. It felt strange to think that I'd been sitting and chatting with people in that village only a few hours earlier.

One of the few Israeli Arab leaders to publicly reject support for the Palestinian intifada is the Mayor of Shfar'am, Orsan Yassin. In an interview with Israeli radio, he condemned the rioting and attacks on Israeli Jews by Israeli Arabs and called upon the Arab citizens of Israel to respect the law. He also condemned Israeli Arab members of Knesset for encouraging the intifada, saying that he views the anti-Israel incitement of certain Israeli Arab Knesset members very gravely and blames them directly for the recent riots by Israeli Arab youths. He added that it is wrong for people who receive their salaries from the state of Israel, who have pledged allegiance to the state and who serve in Israel's parliament to turn against the state and applaud those who burn the Israeli flag. 'If we demonstrate, we should be carrying the Israeli flag, because this is also our flag, the flag of the country of which we are citizens,' he said. Yassin also noted that he knows many Arab mayors who agree with him but are nervous about voicing their opinions in public. Perhaps there should be an independent Palestinian state, but it is not for us, the Arab citizens of Israel, to be a part of it because our home is Israel and we are Israelis'.

I feel that Israeli public is running out of patience. The government decided not to respond militarily after last Monday's Palestinian ambushes which killed four Israelis. The hope was that exercising restraint would encourage the Palestinians to do likewise. With Arafat's call for a reduction in gunfire, this strategy seemed to be paying off. Israeli leaders were even prepared to overlook Saturday's attack, treating it as an exception to the general decline in the number of attacks. All these hopes were dashed by this morning's bombing. There has been a sea change in Israeli public opinion, as well as the tone set by many of our leaders. More and more Israelis are saying that they have had enough of the strategy of restraint in the face of the continuing Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets, civilian and military alike. This afternoon there were spontaneous demonstrations at squares and junctions all over Israel in which the dominant slogans were "We want security" and "Let the army defend us". Many Israelis have come to feel that seven years of the Oslo peace process have only brought us more Palestinian attacks and more bloodshed. That isn't what Israelis expected from a "peace process".

As many Israelis are saying these days: Laila tov v'shaket. Good night, and may it be a quiet one.



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Copyright 2000 by Leiah Elbaum.