January 30, 2001 Update

Letters from Israel


Tuesday, January 30, 2001

Dear family and friends,

The other day someone sent me one of those "inspiring" e-mail chain letters. This one was entitled "Let Your Life Be a Wonderful Adventure!" I couldn't help but laugh. I don't know about wonderful, but adventures, here in Israel we seem to have too many of those. I could certainly go for some wonderful though.

Once again, the amount of news and the pace of events has just been overwhelming. Even more overwhelming though is the task of trying to explain to you overseas what it feels like in Israel right now. I feel the urge to catalogue everything, to send you every fragment of news that happens here because perhaps that is the only way to describe life here. So if this letter is long, forgive me. If it takes several coffee breaks to read it, I understand. I didn't even have space in this letter to write about everything that is on my mind, so much will have to wait for next time. And if I sound a bit incoherent, well, that's just the after effects of the anaesthetic. I had a wisdom tooth removed this evening.

A few weeks ago, on a gloriously sunny and unseasonably warm winter day I took the bus into Jerusalem to take care of some errands. The landscape in this area is now beautifully green after the rains, covered in wildflowers, red anemones, pink cyclamen and white asphodels. The first almond trees are in bloom, creating whitish-pink puffs along the hillsides. From the bus I noticed chukar partridges wandering along rocky embankments next to the highway and even gazelle frolicking on another slope. The gazelle made my day, it's rare to see these shy antelope, though they are not that uncommon in this part of the country.

More unusual, though, were the tanks I saw by the side of the road. I now see them every time I take the bus into Jerusalem. In light of the increasing severity of the attacks on the main Modi'in-Jerusalem road the army has stepped up its presence on the route. There are now several new army outposts on cliff tops overlooking the road. In some of these new outposts, such as the one overlooking the spot were Eli Cohen from Modi'in was murdered in December, there are now also tanks.

I'm not entirely sure how useful the tanks are against snipers, but I suppose that it does make local residents feel that the army is at least doing more to protect us. As to whether they make me feel safer, I'm not sure. On the one hand the increased army presence in general does make the road feel more secure, on the other hand it is terrible to be reminded that things have come to this, that we need tanks on the highway to protect us from Palestinian attack.

The juxtaposition of the gazelle and the tanks was surreal to say the least, but sadly it is a metaphor for our rather odd existence of late. The gazelle is one of the traditional symbols of the land of Israel, "Land of the Gazelle" as the bible describes it. This antelope symbolises grace, beauty, agility and speed in the bible. Perhaps today they symbolise our fleeting dreams of peace and tranquillity.

The tanks reminded me of the other road to Jerusalem. In 1948 Arab snipers controlled the high ground on either side of that road, Route 1, and the only way Jews could get from the Tel Aviv area to Jerusalem was to run the gauntlet in armoured convoys. The wrecks of these armoured vehicles still line the main Tel-Aviv Jerusalem road, grim reminders of the cost paid in Jewish lives to secure the road between Israel's major cities and the Israeli capital.

Route 443, Modi'in's main road to Jerusalem, was recently widened and improved in part so that Israel would never face a 1948 situation again, whereby there was only one major road connecting Jerusalem to the lowlands and coast. So that Jerusalem could never again be besieged so easily, just by cutting the single Jerusalem-Tel-Aviv road with its narrow mountain passes. With Route 443 threatened and the southern road from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion frequently closed due to Palestinian attacks from the Bethlehem area, most of the traffic to Jerusalem is once again channelled through the narrow mountain passes that make up Route 1. God forbid, but it almost feels as though we're sliding back to 1948.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Shayeret haLamed Heh - the Convoy of the 35. During the 1948 Israeli War of Independence 38 Israelis went in a convoy to bring supplies to the Jewish villages of Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, which were then under siege by Arab forces. One man was wounded en route and two men escorted him back to base. The remaining 35 continued until they were ambushed by an Arab mob on a hill en route to the Gush. In the ensuing battle all 35 were killed.

In a radio interview yesterday Shaul Goldstein, the head of the Gush Etzion regional council recalled how his father was in a similar supply convoy, shortly thereafter, the Neve Daniel convoy. Sadly the Israelis were unable to break the siege and the Jewish villages of the Gush fell to the Arab armies. The surviving defenders of the Gush were massacred or captured. However the Gush defenders were instrumental in saving Jerusalem, blocking Egyptian forces advancing from the south and preventing them from joining up with the Jordanian soldiers attacking Jerusalem from the east.

It was only in 1967, in the Six Day War that Israel recaptured this region, following the Jordanian attack on Jerusalem. After this war many surviving Gush residents or their children returned to the region, rebuilding three of the destroyed villages, Kfar Etzion, Neve Daniel and Rosh Tzurim (formerly Ein Tzurim). When the Palestinians began their recent intifada war against Israel the Gush Etzion region was once again on the front line. Shaul Goldstein found himself following in his father's footsteps as he travelled in bullet proofed buses with army escorts to and from his home in the Gush along almost exactly the same route his father took over 50 years ago.

That I haven't written in a while does not mean that it has been quiet here. At the moment on average each week two Israelis are killed by Palestinian gunmen. Most of the deaths have been those of civilians deliberately targeted by Palestinian terrorists. For example, two weeks ago Roni Tzalah, a farmer from Kfar Yam, a village in Israeli Gaza, was murdered by his Palestinian employees. Later that week Ofir Rahum, a teenager from Ashkelon was lured to Palestinian controlled Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, by a Palestinian e-mail penpal, who posed as an American living in Jerusalem. When he went to meet her he was murdered by Palestinian gunmen apparently acting in conjunction with her.

Last week two Israeli restauranteurs, Moti Dayan and Etgar Zeituny, from Tel Aviv's trendy Shenkin Street were murdered when they went with an Israeli Arab acquaintance to Palestinian controlled Tulkarm, east of Netanya, to purchase decorative jugs and flowerpots. The threesome stopped at a restaurant in Tulkarm and were seized by Palestinian gunmen. The two Israeli Jews were "executed", the Israeli Arab's life was spared.

Last Thursday night Akiva Pashkos, a 45-year-old father of six from Jerusalem's Bayit Vegan neighbourhood, was shot and killed by Palestinian gunmen as he drove home from work in the north Jerusalem industrial zone of Atarot.

When the restauranteurs were murdered, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were meeting in Taba, Egypt in a last-ditch effort by the lame-duck Israeli government to come up with a diplomatic success before the impending elections, which they are expected to lose by a landslide. When news came through of the double murder, the Israeli team suspended talks until after the funerals two days later in a gesture of respect to the bereaved families. A couple days later, when Akiva Pashkos was murdered, the Israeli delegation took a break for just one hour, eagerly returning to the table because they assured us much progress was being made and waiting until after the funeral would have been too much of a disruption. Many Israelis felt that respect for the life of Israeli citizens was cheapened by this casual response to Pashkos's murder.

In the end, talks broke up with a glitzy press conference and an empty declaration of "much progress". While Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami spoke of peace, his Palestinian counterpart hinted that if they don't get everything they demand through negotiations, they have "other means" of continuing the struggle. Similarly, in Davos, Switzerland this week, while former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres spoke of his yearnings for peace, Yasser Arafat took the opportunity to spout venomous lies, accusing Israel of all manner of barbaric behaviour, playing to the fears of his European hosts by falsely charging Israel with using depleted uranium and other forms of "illegal" weapons. Shocked by Arafat's outburst, Prime Minister Barak cancelled a planned meeting with him, only to reconsider when Arafat changed his tone completely in an interview the following day, though without retracting any of his earlier vitriolic remarks. Again, Israel speaks of peace, Palestinian leaders speak of war, and Israel comes back for more, and still we dare to hope for peace which looks more remote with each passing day.

This afternoon I attended the funeral of 55-year-old Arieh Herzkovitz, a father of four, murdered yesterday on his way home from work. Herzkovitz, the son of Holocaust survivors, was killed by Palestinian terrorists in a drive-by shooting on the road to his home in Ofra, north of Jerusalem. I didn't know him, but one of his sons is married to a schoolfriend of mine, so I wanted to go and pay my respects. The Petah Tikva cemetery where he was buried was filled with hundreds of mourners, many of whom followed the cortege all the way from Ofra, north of Jerusalem, via his workplace in Atarot, to Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv.

In one of the graveside eulogies the Chief Rabbi of Petah Tikva reminded the mourners that the cemetery in Petah Tikva also contains the graves of the Jews of the town murdered during the anti-Jewish riots of 1921, when local Arabs tried to destroy what was then a small Jewish village. As the thriving modern town of Petah Tikva shows, the Arab mobs of 1921 failed in their mission. Now, as then, the Rabbi said, the Arab mobs terrorising Jews in Israel in an attempt to destroy the Jewish state, will fail in their mission. The Rabbi expressed the hope that Ofra, like Petah Tikva, will thrive and grow.

Yesterday an Israeli taxi driver from Ra'anana was attacked by his Palestinian passengers. The driver picked up the passengers in the Israeli town of Kfar Saba. They asked to be taken to the Israeli Arab village of Baka-el-Gharbia, however instead they tricked him into driving them to the neighbouring Palestinian village of Baka-e-Sharkiya, where they stabbed him. Then more Palestinians appeared on the scene, dragged him out of his taxi and began beating him. In a desperate attempt to save his life the Israeli driver spoke to them in Arabic, insisting that he was in fact an Israeli Arab, not a Jew, begging them to spare his life. The ruse worked. Convinced that the taxi driver was in fact an Arab, they let him go, taking only his car, but sparing his life. Had the Israeli driver not been a fluent Arabic speaker his fate would have been even worse.

In a similar attack last week another Israeli taxi driver was attacked by Palestinian passengers, including a Palestinian policeman, in his cab en-route to Jerusalem. The driver struggled with his attackers, saving his life by jumping from the moving vehicle. By law Israeli taxi drivers have to take passengers who get into their cabs, so it would have been illegal to refuse Palestinian passengers. Several weeks ago a similar attack occurred, also on the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem highway, when a Palestinian passenger stabbed an Israeli taxi driver, seriously wounding him.

These are just the tip of the iceberg. In scores of other roadside attacks Israelis have escaped with "only" minor wounds such as a bullet graze or bruising and fractures from rocks. And so the five month old Palestinian guerilla war goes on. Shooting attacks, fire bombs, roadside bombs and rock throwing continue, some days a bit more, some days a bit less. Any Israeli neighbourhood close to a Palestinian area is a potential target. The Jewish communities of Gaza, especially the village of Netzarim, are under almost constant attack. The Jerusalem neighbourhoods of Gilo, Neveh Ya'akov and Ramot have come under fire from neighbouring Palestinian controlled villages, while other Jerusalem neighbourhoods such as Armon Hanatziv and Giv'at Hamatos have been firebombed. The odd potshot or firebomb lobbed from Palestinian controlled areas in the direction of their Israeli neighbours such as Tzur Yigal, Bat Hefer or Nitzanei 'Oz north of Kfar Saba.

There is a joke, originally by Israeli satirist Uri Orbakh, making the rounds of Israel at the moment in various forms. It goes something like this:

"In America, everyone knows that it is terribly dangerous in Israel now. In Israel everyone knows that it is dangerous only in a little bit of Jerusalem. In Jerusalem everyone knows there is shooting going on, but only in the neighbourhood of Gilo. In Gilo everyone knows that it is dangerous, but only in the houses that face Beit Jalla. In the houses facing Beit Jalla everyone knows it is dangerous, but mostly in a few apartments on specific floors that get shot at occasionally.

"In the apartments that get shot at they know it is dangerous, but not in all the rooms, just in the kitchen. In the bedrooms and bathrooms for instance, it is totally safe. In the kitchen that gets shot into they know it is really dangerous, but not in the entire kitchen, just near the fridge and toaster.

"And in the freezer over the fridge part of the refrigerator on one part of Ha'anafa Street at the edge of Gilo in Jerusalem in Israel? Oh boy, it is dangerous there. If you stand there and get some frozen schnitzels out of the freezer - you're taking your life in your hands. So for a few months, just until things calm down, we're not going to use the freezer. Nu, this you call dangerous?"

So that's the way it is. We try to make the best of a crazy situation.

Oh, and did I mention that we have elections next Tuesday?



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Copyright 2001 by Leiah Elbaum.