March 20, 2001 Update

Letters from Israel

Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Dear family and friends,

I know I haven't written for a while. We've just returned from visiting Jason's family in the US. To put it mildly, being outside of Israel felt rather odd. It wasn't just the superficial differences of foreign landscapes, different weather and a different language. No, it was the different atmosphere, the lack of tension, no one tuning into the news obsessively every hour. Even when we did tune in to the radio the news was relatively staid compared with what we often have at home.

Things felt more relaxed abroad, but then I guess they would be in countries whose right to exist is not constantly questioned. Overall, being in the US, and briefly on stopover in London, made us realise how what passes for normality in Israel is not necessarily that normal. No, as I have said many times before, most of Israel is not the war zone you see on TV. In Israel as well, we consider war zones not to be normal. No, it is the parts of life which we think of as normal, as just like any other country, such as going to the movies, visiting a shopping mall or taking a bus, which after visiting the US seem less routine.

On our first day in America, on the way to visit Jason's grandparents, we stopped at a bookstore in a large shopping mall in the hopes of finding an Israeli newspaper - Israelis are by necessity obsessed with the news. We drove into the parking lot, found a parking space near the bookshop entrance and parked the car. As Jason turned off the engine we suddenly realised that no one had stopped us at the entrance. There had been no line of cars stretching into the main road waiting for a security guard to check them. No one had asked us our name, taken down our licence plate number or inspected the trunk of the car for weapons or other suspicious objects. We had just driven right in and parked. Weird. Due to the threat of terror in Israel you can't do that.

As is often the case, I was schlepping a backpack with my camera, binoculars and a local bird guidebook, just on the offchance that we might see something interesting. As we neared the entrance I kicked myself for having taken along my bag. I hate going to shopping malls, cinemas or department stores with a bag of any sort, but especially not a big bag or one with lots of compartments. It's such a hassle to open it for the guard at the door to inspect. It felt strange to walk right in to the mall carrying whatever we wanted. No one checked to see what was in my bag or whether my camera was in fact a camera or a bomb, or whether Jason was carrying a concealed weapon. No security guard whatsoever. How odd. I didn't see any police or soldiers in the mall at all.

In fact we hardly saw any police or soldiers during our entire visit, save for the odd patrol car on the road or some marines at a shopping centre near an army base. In Israel uniforms are so common that you don't even notice. The security situation and the country's small population require everyone to serve in the army or do other forms of national service, so it's common to see young people in uniform. Many men also do up to a month's reserve duty a year, so it isn't odd to see your neighbour don his uniform once or twice a year, even if usually he works as a mechanic, rabbi, chef or stockbroker. We often see men or women in uniform just doing their groceries or picking the kids up from school.

With the current security problems it is also common to see border guard or police patrols in towns and cities, shopping malls, popular places of entertainment and even sometimes at roadblocks at the entrance to town. The lack of visible security measures in the US was palpable. Of course this isn't to say that the US doesn't have security problems of its own. Every big cities has neighbourhoods you wouldn't want to get lost in, and unlike in Israel, there are no police roadblocks to stop you from accidentally driving into them. Of course the locals know where it's safe, and plan their routes accordingly, just like people do here. Each country and its own risks I suppose.

In fact the only major security presence that I noted was during our stopover in London's Heathrow airport where we had to change planes. There was a posse of British police in flak jackets, carrying wicked looking machine guns, who surrounded the passengers waiting to check in at the El Al desk. No other airline had a similar security presence. I assume that they were there to deter potential attackers, but I and other passengers I chatted to found the way they stood over us very intimidating, as though we were the potential threat to peaceful Britain rather than potential targets. It almost felt as though they were trying to corral us. Security is tight in Israel, but somehow it doesn't usually feel that cumbersome or oppressive.

No offense to our American friends and relatives, but listening to American radio was quite bizarre. Stories about whether there would be another winter blizzard, the new Bush administration's tax plans, Clinton's shenanigans or racing car drivers - if only those were the lead stories here. In general we found the tone and style of US news reports to be more relaxed, sometimes almost lethargic or folksy. They lacked the urgency of Israeli news broadcasts, where every update seems to bring a new crisis. So entrenched is the feeling of living on the edge that even relatively trivial stories are reported with melodramatic overtones.

We arrived home Purim eve. This time of year is a favourite of Jews around the world, especially kids, who look forward to the boisterous Purim holiday. This year should have marked an extra special Purim as Israelis marked the tenth anniversary of the end of the Persian Gulf War. While that war was of course actually fought in the Persian Gulf, about 1000 miles from here, Saddam Hussein used it as an excuse to lob Scud missiles at Israel, mostly at the Tel Aviv area, and Israelis spent the war with the ever present fear that he was going to arm those Scuds with poison gas. The war ended on Purim, and the festival became the first day in months that Israelis were free to go about their lives as usual without schlepping gas masks with them or listening out for air raid sirens.

On Purim eve this year, as the rest of Israel was in the middle of or en route to readings of Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther, in synagogues across the country, the residents of Netzarim, a Jewish village in Gaza, were rushing to their bomb shelters because neighbouring Palestinians were shelling them. Thank God, no one was hurt. As the Jews of Gaza have been under attack for 6 months now, the event got little coverage. Purim morning, as I was preparing mishloah manot, the traditional Purim food gifts, to deliver to family and friends, a resident of Netzarim was being interviewed on the radio about how he was going to be spending the festival. He described how after two mortar shells landed in the village residents hurried to their shelters, bringing with them food for the Purim banquet and megillat Esther scrolls. A few families gathered with his in a neighbourhood shelter. One man had thought to grab his accordion, and he played Purim songs to keep their spirits up. The resident being interviewed said that as they read the Purim story from the book of Esther they had faith that just as the Jews of ancient Persia were saved from Haman's evil decree, so they would be saved from their enemies. What a way to spend what should be one of the most joyous festivals of the Jewish year.

Thankfully Purim in most other parts of Israel passed peacefully. Israel's tight security measures succeeded in preventing terror attacks. Most towns held their annual Purim fancy dress parades as usual, though with stepped up security. With the festival falling on Friday in most of Israel, and on Sunday in Jerusalem and other towns with ancient walled centres, Purim was rare long weekend in Israel this year.

The tighter security measures included a strict closure around Palestinian controlled territory in the Ramallah area north of Jerusalem. Ramallah and surrounding Palestinian villages are the principal base for many Palestinian Authority militias and terror cells carrying out attacks on Israelis in the Jerusalem area. In order to prevent the terrorists from reaching Israeli areas the Israeli army created a tight cordon of roadblocks on roads in the region, isolating Ramallah from surrounding Palestinian villages and towns - and from Jerusalem.

Contrary to reports on CBS or the BBC et al the closure was not an attempt at "collective punishment", but rather a means for curbing Palestinians attacks on Israelis. As an Israeli army spokesman put it, better that the Palestinian gunmen target army roadblocks than Israeli civilians. These towns and villages were not under siege, but movement in and out was limited to a few main entrances and exits with every vehicle checked scrupulously. Food and other humanitarian supplies were allowed in. The operation has proved quite successful so far, with Israel capturing several terrorists and so preventing a planned bombing in Jerusalem. I've noticed that the foreign media seems to be ignoring these aspects, focussing only on what they see as the harsh restrictions on Palestinian movement in the region.

Israelis do not relish imposing such restrictions on civilian Palestinians, but we relish even less being shot at and bombed by Palestinian terrorists. Under the circumstances the closure and restrictions seem to be the most effective way of preventing terrorists from infiltrating into Israel. In fact hours after the closure was lifted in Bethlehem Palestinian gunmen ambushed and murdered an Israeli driver on his way to work from Efrat to Jerusalem. They then escaped to Palestinian controlled Bethlehem with no Israeli checkpoints in their way.

No doubt ordinary Palestinian civilians are suffering, but it is the Palestinians who have instigated this war and continue to besiege Israeli communities by terrorising their roads with snipers and booby traps. Whenever the roads are open to Palestinian traffic, terror cells take the opportunity to ambush Israeli traffic. They do this with the support and assistance of their pseudo government and with the sympathy of a large majority of the civilian population as repeated Palestinian opinion polls have indicated. So long as the Palestinians continue to attack Israelis on the road, snipe at Israeli communities and plant bombs in Israeli towns, why should Israel feel any obligation, legal or moral, to open these roads to them or grant them work permits? If they are suffering they should complain to their leadership for destroying the peace process and starting an unnecessary war that has cost us all dearly. It seems they wish to achieve their goals through warfare without suffering the consequences.

Nissan, the Hebrew month in which the Pesah festival falls, begins this Sunday. I never imagined that when the Palestinian assault began just before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, nearly six months ago, that I would be preparing for Pesah in its shadow.

Wishing you all hodesh tov, a good month.


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Copyright 2001 by Leiah Elbaum.