August 22, 2001 Update

Letters from Israel

Wednesday, August 22, 2001

Dear family and friends,

We were up late last night. I was engrossed working on an old skirt I was repairing and Jason was relaxing in an armchair in front of the TV, enjoying the cool breeze blowing in from the open balcony door. A typical lazy summer evening at home. Our evening's excitement had been our trusty fan which for no apparent reason started to burn - Jason saw flames licking around the motor and unplugged it just in time.

The day's big news had been a large car bomb on Horaknos Street in central Jerusalem which thank God failed to explode. A smaller bomb next to it, apparently meant to trigger the larger device, did go off, and this is what alerted police to the main bomb, 10 kilograms of explosives hidden in the trunk of a car and packed with nails, bits of metal and a few mortar shells. It took police 7 hours to defuse the bomb, during which time the surrounding streets were closed. If the bomb had gone off on the busy street, close to several popular cafes and police headquarters, we'd be counting the death toll now, making the round of anxious phone calls - you know the drill by now.

The midnight news brought more reports of close calls. Tonight there were two shootings in the Modi'in area. One was a few kilometres north of us, on a road which connects the town of Kiryat Sefer to several villages to the north and east. There have been several attacks on this road recently, and only a few weeks ago a family we know from one of those villages was shot and wounded nearby.

The other shooting was even closer to home, on the Jerusalem-Modi'in road, this time at Makkabim Junction, roughly 5 minutes drive from my apartment. Thank God the man whose car was shot up escaped physically unhurt. His car was damaged, his nerves jangled, but otherwise he's fine.

This is the first shooting near the Modi'in end of the highway since January. There have been one or two stonings, but the road has been pretty quiet for months now, ever since the Israeli army caught the terror cell responsible for attacks in the area. Ever since the army moved tanks into position on embankments dominating the highway, added several new lookout posts at other strategic vantage points along the road, and blocked the access roads from local Palestinian villages to the highway to make it harder for terrorists to mount attacks on this shared road.

In recent months the quiet in this area has perhaps lulled us into the belief that maybe in our little corner life really had returned to normal. Many people have gone back to driving on the road as usual, even after dark. Palestinian fruit sellers from neighbouring villages set up their stalls along the highway as they do every summer, selling prickly pears, grapes and figs from their orchards.

Over the summer I've noticed that many of the new Israeli lookouts have been removed. First the tanks disappeared. Then some of the guard towers were no longer manned, consisting simply of an Israeli flag on a cliff top. I understand that the army is stretched at the moment, and there are many roads far more threatened than ours. Still, it was worrying to see the army downscale their presence here. Finally, with the threat of local terrorism diminished, Palestinian access roads to the highway were re-opened. As this latest shooting indicates, the terrorists are already taking advantage of this.

Saturday night a week ago, just after havdalah, Jason decided that we were going to the movies in honour of my birthday and I confess, also to ease some of the tension of recent weeks. As we parked at the shopping mall in Petah Tikva I noticed a branch of Sbarro's next to the cinema.

Personally I hate their food - we tried them a couple of times and vowed never to eat there again - but somehow, after seeing their big Jerusalem branch blown up by a suicide bomber only a few days earlier I felt like I wanted to give them my business, just because, to show solidarity, just to thumb my nose at the terrorists. In Friday's newspaper Sbarro had a big ad with condolences for the victims and get well wishes for the wounded, concluding with a promise to re-open their Jerusalem branch as soon as possible in defiance of the terrorists. Jason looked at me, obviously thinking the same thing and said "Shall we have a meal at Sbarro?" I wrinkled my nose in disgust. "I know" he responded, "sometimes war makes you want to do the stupidest things..."

I wonder if we'll ever just look at Sbarro as just a chain with mediocre food or whether in our mind's eye we'll always see it as the bombed out branch on the corner of Jaffa Road and King George Street. Last night as we drove into Jerusalem to visit relatives we passed the wreckage of the pizzeria. A crowd of people stood by the boarded up ruins, some lighting candles, some reciting Psalms, others just standing and staring. I think that I know what they were thinking, what many of us have been thinking - that could have been me walking past this corner, crossing the road at this zebra crossing or eating in this restaurant. There but for the grace of God.

In Modi'in we are certainly not about to forget the bombing in a hurry. Among the wounded is Hanna Nachenberg, a young mother from Modi'in. She had gone out for pizza with her two and half year-old daughter Sarah. Sarah escaped the bombing virtually unhurt. Hanna's heart was pierced by a fragment of the bomb and since then she remains comatose in critical condition at a Jerusalem hospital. Her husband David spends his time by her bedside, as do her parents, also residents of Modi'in.

Local people are doing what they can to help the family. Shops at the nearby Modi'in shopping centre are donating food and toys. On the Modi'in e-mail list people are organising a baby sitting roster for little Sarah, the recitation of Psalms and get well prayers, meal arrangements and fundraising to cover the transport costs to and from the hospital. The Modi'in town council has allowed friends and family to appeal for donations at this summer's events in the town's parks. Only yesterday a note went out on the list asking for volunteers to help man the stalls.

Not long after, another message went out on the list, this time raising funds for another local family, the Schijveschuurders from the village of Neriah, just north of the Modi'in bloc. Five members of the family of ten, including both parents, were killed in the Sbarro bombing. Now five orphans are left to be cared for, three young adult sons and two little girls.

Despite it all we're doing our best to keep our spirits up. Long breezy summer evenings are a popular time for outdoor concerts, many of them free. While watering my plants on the balcony tonight I was deafened by loud pop music and cheers coming from the end of summer children's festivities sponsored by the Children's Channel. In the background sirens wailed, part of a civil defense rescue exercise, but they were drowned out by the monster sound system as teeny bopper stars belted out upbeat numbers about making the world a better place full of peace and love.

Just so you don't think we're sitting around moping the whole time, we've also been out and about enjoying the summer events, taking in some free concerts in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Modi'in, an artists' fair in Jerusalem, Tu B'Av celebrations in Shiloh and the Ben Shemen forest and a conference on Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University. Maybe I'll tell you about some of the fun stuff next time. God willing.

Good night/morning,


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Copyright 2001 by Leiah Elbaum.