Wednesday, March 21, 2001
Dear family and friends,
Last night we went out to dinner at a lovely little Hungarian restaurant in Tel Aviv to celebrate Jason's birthday. The restaurant was cosy and crowded. In the warm, heimish atmosphere it was possible to forget that the security situation here is one of the worst in Israel's history. It was so relaxing to spend an evening without listening to the radio. On the drive home the we discussed Pesah holiday plans and enjoyed the delicious night time fragrance of jasmine that wafts over a large section of the Tel-Aviv-Modi'in highway during the spring. Save for the extra police patrols, all seemed peaceful, just as it was half a year ago.
This morning we went into Jerusalem to take care of some errands at the bank. We left the house too early to have time for breakfast so we had brunch at a cafe where I had arranged for a surprise birthday cake for Jason. He then went off to work, but I had some more errands to do in Jerusalem so I spent most of the day there, later meeting a friend for coffee and picking out a lovely new hat for Pesah. Tired, schlepping assorted packages, I headed for the nearest bus stop to return to Modi'in.
As I walked along it dawned on me that a helicopter kept passing overhead, backwards and forwards over the centre of town. Even by current standards, there seemed to be a lot of police and security vehicles around. Something was definitely up. I reached my bus stop with several minutes to spare. It was an unusually hot March day and I was parched so I popped into a kiosk to get some water. While waiting to pay I overheard another customer telling the shop keeper that he'd just come from the Meah She'arim neighbourhood and that the street he needed to get to was closed due to a suspect car bomb. I was a few minutes walk from Meah She'arim, right on the edge of the neighbourhood.
I didn't panic though. No, not because I'm so brave, but because false alarms are common. Each abandoned car, every bag someone dumps or loses, each box of rubbish - all are suspicious objects and the police take any possible bomb seriously. Only two months earlier I nearly missed my bus while waiting at that same stop because police suddenly came across a suspect package in the same area, closed off the street and told everyone to leave. In the end that suspect bomb had thank God been a false alarm.
The news meant that the bus would be delayed, traffic would be bad and who knew how long I'd have to wait in the hot sun with all my packages. The bus stop was filling up rapidly with people waiting for buses which could not get through because of the nearby road closures or the subsequent traffic jams.
The Modi'in bus was coming from a part of town relatively unaffected by the closures. The continuation of the route was however directly through the crowded narrow streets of Meah She'arim, "Shabbat Square" and the Bukharan Quarter. That entire area was closed off by the police, and all its traffic and pedestrians had been pushed out into the bustling and congested streets of central Jerusalem. As you can imagine it was pretty chaotic, traffic was moving at a snail's pace, if at all, while pedestrians, cars and even buses were weaving in and out trying to find alternate routes. It was a long and tense ride home that afternoon.
By the time I arrived home I had missed the early evening news and it was only at 7.30pm that I heard the whole story. This afternoon it wasn't a false alarm. The car bomb was very real and very large. Only by a miracle had a terrible tragedy been averted. A passerby noticed an illegally parked car which was blocking traffic and called a municipal parking inspector to do something about it. The inspector became suspicious when he noticed that the car was beautifully new, so nice and new that no one in their right mind would risk parking it like that on a narrow crowded street. Something seemed wrong. He checked the licence plate number and sure enough, the car was stolen. Fearing that it was a bomb he rushed to clear the area, warning people to run away. Police then carried out a controlled explosion. For the third time in recent months the people of Meah She'arim were miraculously saved from a Palestinian terrorist's bomb.
How chilling to discover that this afternoon I and thousands of other civilians going about their daily business had been within a kilometre radius of a large car bomb. What a debt we owe to the vigilance of that municipal parking inspector.
Another crazy day in Israel. Another Palestinian terror attack added to the growing list. Thank God this one had a happy ending.
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Copyright 2001 by Leiah Elbaum.