April 15, 2001 Update

Letters from Israel

Sunday, April 15, 2001

Dear family and friends,

First, a personal note. I've delayed sending this letter because I wanted to add a few words about Jason's grandfather, Nathan, who passed away over Pesah at the age of 80. Holocaust Memorial Day falls a few days after Pesah, and so it seems especially appropriate to tell his story. As a young man in Poland during World War II, Nathan had hidden in the woods with the Partisans fighting the Nazis. He met his wife, a concentration camp survivor, may she merit long life, in an Austrian refugee camp after the war. He raised three children and lived to see nine grandchildren and one great-grandson. We will miss him deeply. May his memory be blessed.

Pesah has been and gone. For the past several weeks TV and radio here were full of seasonal ads. Cleaning materials and vacuum cleaners featured prominently (lots of special offers...). Wine commercials featured sedarim. Moses hit the rock and got a special offer on Mei Eden mineral water. A toothpaste company had belly dancing tubes of paste proclaiming the "greatest offer since the Exodus from Egypt". A jewellery store advertised its seasonal discount offers with a pun on the traditional Mah Nishtana seder night song: "why is this Pesah different from all others? Because we had such great offers this year!". All manner of regular food commercials had banners proudly announcing that they will be kosher for Pesah this year. The frenzy of cleaning and scrubbing was in the air, along with the smell of burning hametz.

Of all the Jewish festivals, Pesah is probably the one which is most widely celebrated in the traditional manner by an overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews. Almost all the Jews of Israel attended a seder, well over 80% according to most statistics. About 70% read through the entire Haggadah. Most kept kosher for Pesah. In short, this is a major holiday here and even if there is a guerilla war going on in parts of the country, Israelis are not about to cancel their usual Pesah activites.

True, Israelis are being a bit more cautious than normal and a lot more alert, but aside from that they are getting on with their lives as best they can. In the approach to the Pesah festival the shops and markets were crowded with people preparing for the holiday. Many malls and places of entertainment weren't quite as crowded as usual, but they were pretty busy and merchants reported record sales.

The newspapers were full of ads for the usual Pesah music festivals and children's events. All the annual Pesah festivals recorded large ticket sales. Tens of thousands of Israelis flocked to events such as the Misgav music festival and the Boombamala New Age gathering, as well as more traditional religious events, such as the mass priestly blessing ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Hotels in the Red Sea resort of Eilat were booked up, as were most guesthouses in the Galilee. Pesah is one of the three pilgrim festivals, and Jews flocked to Jerusalem from around the country and the world.

Security is the tightest I think I've ever seen it, with police everywhere and police roadblocks popping up sporadically on major roads or at the entrances to towns. On a recent visit to Tel Aviv the heavier than usual police presence was palpable. Making a bus connection at the central bus station I lost count of the number of times buses and bags were inspected. There seemed to be a police officer or soldier at every exit and entrance, on every bench, inspecting every bus and patrolling every section of every level of this giant bus terminal, the largest in the world. The same was true everywhere I've been in the past few weeks, including the seaside town of Netanya, which has been targeted by terrorists several times in recent months.

We spent the seder with relatives in the nearby town of Kiryat Sefer, just north of Modi'in. Kiryat Sefer is a Hareidi town whose main industry is probably the study and teaching of Torah. The atmosphere was frantic with the last minute Pesah rush, followed by a magical calm as Shabbat began. As we sat down to the seder with my cousins and other friends we heard the sounds of other sedarim from adjacent apartments, each family and their traditional tunes. Every household took the seder at its own pace, some reading quickly through the Haggadah in order to finish the meal before midnight, others drawing out the retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, others adding special gimmicks and games to keep the children alert and interested throughout the extended meal.

At our seder, my cousin awarded chocolates to every child - and every young-at-heart adult - who asked or answered a question about the ceremony. Even the two year old got a prize for knowing how to complete each word of the Mah Nishtana, when prompted. I guess that our seder was one of the longer ones, certainly one of the liveliest (6 adults and about a dozen kids) and by the time we all finished and had cleared away it was after 3am.

The next evening, after yom tov, we went into Jerusalem for a concert by Yehoshua Engelman, who served as the rabbi of our community for a number of years, and who is also a singer and musician. His music is itself a commentary on the texts he chooses, a mixture of traditional religious works and modern Israeli poetry. That night, as he often does, he ended the concert by singing Psalm 23 to the melody he composed. "Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death I will not fear, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff will comfort me.You prepare a table before me in the face of my enemies." It was the first time those words had really struck a chord with me. Indeed, we had prepared our seder tables in the shadow of the enemy. Our seder felt like a form of resistance and triumph over the Palestinian gunmen and bombers who have been trying their hardest to destroy normal existence in Israel.

That night as we returned home from the concert, we heard on the radio that Palestinian gunmen had opened fire that evening on the outskirts of Kiryat Sefer. Thank God no one was hurt, but an apartment was hit by two bullets. This is the second shooting towards the town and the third attack in the region north of Modi'in in recent weeks. It seems as though Palestinian gunmen are trying to stir things up in what have been until now mostly peaceful Palestinian villages. The attack certainly jangled a lot of nerves in an area that has been pretty safe until now.

A week earlier, shots were fired at the security patrol road of the village of Menora just southeast of Kiryat Sefer, from the neighbouring Palestinian village of Harbata. Two Israeli watchmen were lightly injured. This was the first attack on Menora or its larger neighbour, Lapid. The shootings alarmed local residents because, although the Modi'in region is a border area, with many Israeli and Palestinian communities in close proximity, in comparison with many other border regions there have been only a few isolated incidents of Palestinian violence. Six months ago the idea of any attacks would have been ludicrous; now we are grateful that there have only been a few "isolated incidents".

Still, on the whole the Pesah holiday passed mercifully quietly in most parts of the country. During hol hamo'ed we did some day trips to southern Israel. Driving south, the heightened military activity as we passed turnoffs towards the Gaza region reminded us that in that part of the country the war was going on as usual, with Palestinian shootings and mortar attacks taking place against Israeli communities in and around Gaza on a daily basis. Yet only a few kilometers west, away from the tense border with the Palestinian Authority, there was no indication save for the military traffic that anything was out of the ordinary, with national parks full of hikers and picnickers. We enjoyed trips to the southern Dead Sea, and to a nature reserve and ruined castle near Nizzana, in the western Negev desert.

Not long ago, it was hard to imagine we would enjoy a relatively quiet Pesah. The week of March 21-28 saw one of the most intense Palestinian assaults in months, apparently timed to coincide with the summit of Arab leaders in Jordan. It was, to say the least, a very tense and difficult week. Between March 25-28 alone dozens of Israelis were wounded and three killed, including a 10-month-old baby. Over the course of the week, eight Palestinian bombs were planted in Israeli cities, of which four exploded. The damage could easily have been far worse, but we were very lucky. The diary of that week's major attacks is astounding even by recent standards.

As I mentioned in my last letter, on Wednesday, March 21, an alert parking inspector in Jerusalem discovered a car bomb which was successfully defused by police. Late the following night a small bomb exploded outside a crowded restaurant in the Herzliya industrial zone where Jason works. Monday evening, tragedy was averted in Petah Tikva's busy main street when an alert falafel snack bar owner noticed a suspicious package outside his kiosk. That night Palestinian snipers, who have been targeting the playground of the Hebron Jewish Quarter, killed ten-month-old Shalhevet Pas with a single shot to the head. Her father Yitzhak was wounded in the legs by a second bullet, and another bullet lightly grazed another little girl playing there, ripping a hole in her dress.

On Tuesday, two bombs went off in Jerusalem. The first, just before 8am, was a powerful car bomb which exploded in the Talpiot industrial zone, a major commercial district, fortunately before many businesses had opened. A parked bus shielded passersby, so there were "only" light injuries. A few hours later at the busy French Hill junction in northern Jerusalem a suicide bomber detonated a bomb next to a city bus, wounding more than thirty people. That evening, in one of many Palestinian stoning attacks, Danielle Fein, 27, of Be'er Sheva, was hit in the head and critically wounded as she sat in the family car en route to sheva brakhot wedding celebrations in Yakir, east of Petah Tikva.

Wednesday morning March 28 brought worse news, with three attempted bombings. Two of them, in the central Netanya and Petah Tivka markets, were averted by alert civilians who noticed suspicious packages and notified the police. The third, at the ironically named "Peace Junction" gas station just outside the town of Kfar Saba, resulted in tragedy. As on every weekday morning, a group of schoolboys were waiting there for their schoolbus. As they were waiting, a suicide bomber approached them and detonated himself in their midst. Fourteen-year-old Eliran Rosenberg-Ziat of the Tel Aviv suburb of Giv'at Shmuel and 13-year-old Naftali Lanzcron of Petah Tikva were killed along with the bomber. Another boy was critically injured while two others suffered moderate wounds and one was lightly wounded.

Early the next week two Israeli soldiers were killed in separate sniper attacks, one near Nablus / Shekhem, and the other near Rachel's Tomb south of Jerusalem. The latter attack was only the start of a major Palestinian assault on the Jewish holy site which raged in the area for several hours and could be heard throughout much of Jerusalem.

Saturday night, as Pesah ended, we turned on the TV news to discover that two bombs had gone off near the central synagogue of Kfar Saba, northeast of Tel Aviv. The second exploded about an hour after the first and was apparently targeted at the rescue crews responding to the first blast. Three Israelis were injured, one seriously. The next morning another bomb exploded on the road just east of Kfar Saba, near the border with Palestinian controlled Kalkilya.

Many Israelis think that Palestinian terrorists have found it easier to infiltrate Israel since Israel relaxed the closure on Palestinian-controlled areas, allowing freer movement within these areas and greater access to Israel. Israel is in a quandary. On the one hand the government and most Israelis don't want to place restrictions on ordinary Palestinian civilians, yet on the other hand, when Israel does ease restrictions on Palestinian travel the result has been increased terror, as terrorists are also freer to move around. No simple solution is apparent.

Despite the situation, though, most Israelis are not feeling as jumpy and anxious as one might expect. Yes, the possibility that a bomb might go off in any Israeli city or marketplace is to say the least unnerving, but after so many months of the Palestinian onslaught Israelis are sadly becoming used to this threat. Despite the attacks, most of the time it is still pretty safe in most parts of the country. At the beginning many people were a bit hysterical and panicky, but as the months go on people have become resigned to this state of semi-war or "low intensity conflict". Israelis by and large are not putting their lives on hold any longer because who knows how long this crazy situation will go on. The Palestinians are counting on whittling away at Israeli resolve with the constant pressure of a long-term terror campaign. Only the fortitude of the Israeli public can see us through this difficult period.

Shavua Tov,


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Copyright 2001 by Leiah Elbaum.