May 2, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Thursday, May 2, 2002

Dear family and friends,

I spent last night at a friend's birthday party in a neighbourhood bomb shelter in a remote Israeli mountaintop village between Ramallah and Shekhem/Nablus.

Well, the only reason we were in the bomb shelter was that it is a convenient large room for community events, parties, kids' activities and the like. Across Israel there are synagogues and kindergartens located in bomb shelters. When peace breaks out we'll just be left with loads of soundproofed reinforced concrete dance halls. I'm surprised that no Israeli songwriter has penned a peace song like that yet.

We took the bus, bullet proofed as all buses on this route are. Our friends had advised against taking our car. The road from northern Jerusalem, bypassing the outskirts of Ramallah, and winding its way up into the Samarian mountains has been the scene of several fatal shootings over the past 18 months, though thank God it's pretty quiet lately.

We passed the spot where, exactly a year ago, a friend's husband was murdered one morning by Palestinian terrorists while on his way to work. Further on we passed the old police post where last March a Palestinian sniper killed nine Israelis.

Inside the bus, though, most of us weren't concentrating on the dangers of the route. Many commute this way every day.

For those of us en route to our friend's surprise birthday party it felt a bit like a school outing, or perhaps a reunion. Already at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station we were looking out for old pals, greeting one another as we boarded the bus, waving as we caught sight of friends.

The seats inside the bulletproof bus are more cramped than on regular buses, the armour adding extra thickness to the walls and windows, making the window seat especially cramped. Good thing I was sitting next to my husband. It was still cramped but at least those were my husband's elbows poking me in the ribs.

Getting into the bus station itself was a hassle. Jason hadn't been there in a while, and was surprised by the x-ray machines checking every bag brought into the building. Imagine going through airport style security every time you want to get a bus.

Above the x-ray machines and the escalators a verse from Psalm 122 is inscribed: "Seek peace, Jerusalem; your lovers will find serenity. Let there be peace in your precincts, serenity in your palaces. For the sake of my brothers and friends let me wish you peace. For the sake of the House of our God I will seek good for you."

Perhaps since my visit to the States I note the craziness of all this even more, the juxtaposition of our everyday, ordinary routines with the trappings of a state under siege.

It seems even crazier to me that such a beautiful bus journey should be marred by concerns about snipers. The scenery is so beautiful, rustic and biblical. Rugged mountains, their stony slopes still green from the winter rains, dotted with bright patches of yellow wild mustard, white wild carrot, red poppies and the bright pink flashes of wild hollyhocks and snapdragons.

In between we passed fields, vineyards, olive groves, shepherds with their goats and sheep, a family harvesting their barley crop with scythes, a donkey tethered in a roadside meadow.

Every so often we passed a village. The Israeli villages are mostly on hilltops, the compact red roofed houses neatly arranged in tight rows. Some have vineyards, date palms, olive trees or orchards. Most have tidy shrubs or pleasantly disorganised flowerbeds. A few have goat pens or pet donkeys in the yards.

The Palestinian villages sprawl, usually in the valleys. In some there are large ornate homes haphazardly scattered between large lots, some with beautiful gardens, others with yards full of old cars and building junk. Other villages are more modest, simple concrete box shaped houses nestling in the valley, or perched on stilts with storage space underneath.

In some of the Palestinian villages they have copied the tiled red roofs popular amongst Israelis. In some of the Israeli villages the houses have the concrete balustrades and ornamentation popular amongst the Palestinians.

The scene is so pastoral, it's hard to imagine that there could be a war going on. I've taken this road so many times before, the landscape is an old friend. It feels ridiculous to have to think of it as a potential danger.

Arriving at our destination, we passed through another checkpoint and then the bus wended its way up a narrow road to the village. We hurriedly made our way to the bomb shelter/function hall, where more friends awaited.

Assorted children chased each other round the room, munching on pizza and playing under the tables. The grownups caught up on each other's news, talked politics and kept an eye on the kids. Tables were piled high with salads, falafel, pizza and soft drinks. The otherwise stark room felt warm and cosy, with the odd balloon taped to the ceiling. You could almost forget it was a bomb shelter.

The night time return route felt a little spooky. The moon hadn't yet risen and the nightly mountain mists were closing in, swirling around us. Much of the route was lit only by the twinkling lights of the villages, neat rows of orange lights for Israeli ones, random white lights for Arab ones.

By the time our bus pulled back into the Jerusalem bus station it was nearly 11pm. We reached our car just in time for the news. Will Arafat leave his Ramallah compound? British and American guards escort the murderers of the late Israeli minister of tourism out of Ramallah to a jail in Jericho. Palestinian attacks continue on Israeli villages and roads in and around Gaza. Diplomatic manoeuvring proceeds at the United Nations. Back to the real world. During our quiet evening in the West Bank, it seemed a world away.


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.