April 12, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

As I'm getting ready to send this there has been a newsflash of another suicide bombing, this time on a pedestrian crossing, near a crowded bus outside Jerusalem's bustling Mahane Yehuda market. So far reports say six killed and 60 wounded.

Only this week Israeli security forces arrested a young Palestinian woman in Tulkarm who was planning to disguise herself as a pregnant woman, with a bomb hidden in her falsely extended stomach. In Bethlehem a few days ago Israel arrested a 14-year-old girl whose terrorist uncle had asked her to recruit girls from her class as suicide bombers.

Yesterday in Jerusalem there were plenty of Arab women out shopping. A couple of them were sitting behind me on the bus. No doubt most were innocent Israeli or Palestinian Arabs from the Jerusalem area, but who knows anymore whether one of them might just blow herself up as she stands next to you in the bus queue or at the entrance to the supermarket.

American Secretary of State Powell was in his helicopter in Jerusalem, just a mile away, on his way to meet with Arafat in Ramallah.

Friday, April 12, 2002

Dear family and friends,

During our visit to America I was amazed at how slow the news cycle is there. The same headlines are recycled for a day at a time. In Israel, stories last no more than a few hours before they are overtaken by the hectic pace of events.

On Wednesday morning, only a few hours after getting back from the US, I was still getting my mind around the deluge of Israeli news when reports came through of a suicide bombing on a bus en route to Jerusalem from Haifa. Eight dead, fourteen wounded. The bomber, a native of Jenin, apparently made his way to Haifa from Tulkarm, one of the Palestinian cities Israel just withdrew from under American pressure. Go Colin Powell.

It was against the backdrop of this story that we heard the news of Wednesday's anti-Israel declaration from world leaders in Madrid. Together, the United Nations, the European Union, the United States of America and the Russian Federation got together to further the cause of world peace by - what else? - condemning Israel.

As we in Israel were burying the previous day's dead, arranging the funerals for the victims of that day's bombing and fighting a difficult urban battle in the terrorists' home bases, the free world was gathering to condemn us for winning, and ordering that we stop with such unacceptable behaviour right now. After all, Israelis dying like lambs to the slaughter in terrorist attacks - that they can deal with; but Israelis killing terrorists in self-defence - now that is a threat to world peace.

It seems the European powers are still bent on 1930s-style appeasement of terror, with Israel as the new Czechoslovakia, a sacrificial lamb to the powers of tyranny. The US, for all Bush's tough speeches, seems to be following Europe's lead. Americans were greatly offended a few months ago when Sharon drew the Czechoslovakia comparison, but unfortunately it appears that the warning has gone unheeded.

The United Nations is useless as usual, always eager to side with petty tyrants and tinpot dictators like Syria's Assad over a free democracy like Israel. But we don't expect much more of the body that in 1975 proudly hosted Yasser Arafat in the UN Assembly with a pistol in his holster.

The European Parliament threatened us with economic sanctions. The head of Israel's chamber of commerce scoffed at the suggestion. So long as a cup of coffee in Europe costs a couple of dollars, while in Israel it can cost a couple of lives, Israelis won't be intimidated by economic threats, he said.

The United Nations and Colin Powell threatened us with international observers and perhaps "peacekeepers". If we're lucky they'll be as successful as they are in southern Lebanon. There they stand idly by as Hizballah militiamen launch attacks into northern Israel across the UN-demarcated international border.

Meanwhile Israelis are trying to work out how and if to celebrate Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Israel Independence Day, which falls next Tuesday night and Wednesday.

While we were in the US, several people approached me and asked how Jewish communities there should relate to the holiday this year. How can we celebrate in the midst of a war?

In Israel people are also grappling with that question, though the issue here is primarily one of security. Should we risk large public gatherings and further burden the already stretched resources of the security forces?

This is not that first time we are commemorating our independence in the shadow of war and death, and I fear it will not be the last. In the early years of the state they celebrated this day with the fresh memory of thousands of Israeli war dead. The joy of Yom Ha'atzma'ut is never complete, always dampened by the sadness of the previous day, Yom Hazikaron, Israel Memorial Day.

It is only right that before Independence Day we remember and honour the thousands of Israelis who gave their lives so that we might live. This year more than ever it is appropriate that Jews everywhere take that day to mourn and pray for those no longer with us, especially the over 460 Israelis killed in this war since September 2000, over 750 since the start of the Oslo "peace" process in September 1993.

But it is equally important, and no less an honour to the fallen, that the next day we celebrate the freedom for which they sacrificed, along with everything the state of Israel has achieved. Fifty-four years ago Israel was an impoverished country flooded with destitute Jewish refugees from Europe and the Middle East. Who would have imagined that in such a short stretch of time we would have a Western standard of living, become a world leader in medicine, agriculture, software and so many other high tech industries, absorb millions of Jewish refugees - and survive repeated Arab attempts to destroy us. We may still be fighting for our very survival, but we still have a lot to be grateful for.

More than ever this year Israelis have gone crazy for Israeli flags and patriotic blue and white bunting. It makes Americans look flag-shy. The big thing here is a flag for your car, preferably two. Many workplaces give out flags for their employees and company cars. Supermarkets have special deals on flags or offer free flags with your purchase. Lampposts along the highways and high streets are festooned with flags, coloured lights and streamers.

In some towns they are cancelling or scaling down the festivities, but in many others, including Jerusalem, there is a feeling that more than ever, we need to celebrate Israel Independence Day, to remember what we are fighting for, what the State of Israel has achieved, and why we're here.

In Modi'in and the neighbouring twin towns of Makkabim-Re'ut Independence Day festivities have been somewhat scaled back because of security concerns. The usual multitude of venues would just be too much of a burden. There will be the usual firework displays and big concerts in the town centres though, with popular singers such as Nurit Galron and Riki Gal, and the more modest traditional Israeli "kumzitz" campfire singaglong in Makkabim. Security will be tight, but people will be doing their best to have a good time, if only for the sake of defiance.

Happy Independence Day.

Shabbat shalom,


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.