May 24, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Friday, May 24, 2002

Dear family and friends,

My personal excitement for today was the cute little pink lizard which lodged itself in the frame of my open bathroom window. I managed to coax it out, only to have it flee in the wrong direction, slip on the smooth tiled bathroom window sill and land unceremoniously in the bathtub, where it ran around in frantic circles trying to escape up the slippery bath sides.

At this point the phone rang. Jason told the caller that I couldn't talk because I was busy chasing a lizard around the bathtub.

Eventually I somehow coaxed the panicked creature into an (empty) plastic hummus container. Well, the first time I thought I'd caught it, I was left with nothing but its tail - they are detachable for just such emergencies. The second time I was fast enough to trap it and carry it out to freedom on my balcony. I'm happy to report that it has found itself a nice shady corner near my pepper plant and when last seen was happily gorging itself on plant bugs.

If only life in Israel could always be this uneventful.

As of about 1am this morning, Israel has a new hero: Modi'in resident Eli Federman. A 36-year-old security guard, his alertness foiled a terror attack at a Tel Aviv disco.

Standing outside the Studio 49 club, Federman suddenly saw a car hurtling towards the building. He yelled at the kids standing near the door to get down, and then opened fire at the vehicle. It erupted into a massive explosion, sending pipe bombs in all directions. Thanks to Federman's actions there were only five injuries, and the only person killed was the terrorist himself.

It was barely a year ago that a suicide bomber murdered 22 young Israelis at the Dolphinarium disco on Tel Aviv's beachfront. Had it succeeded, today's attack could easily have been worse.

Just as life in Israel seemed to be returning to some semblance of normality, just as people were feeling freer again, right after the most normal holiday Israel has known in a long time, the bombers plunge us all back into the routine of death and destruction.

Over last week's Shavuot holiday weekend, for the first time in a long while, hotels all over Israel were booked up, Israelis were travelling and hiking in numbers not seen since the war started. This Shavuot hinted that perhaps, just perhaps, this time, something was going to change for the better. The PLO would reform, the more moderate Arab states would force Arafat to behave - and Mary Poppins would come to the rescue of us all.

Only last Shabbat, as we were sitting around the table and "the situation" came up, Jason was saying how it looked as though things might be starting to change, the war might be drawing to a close, or at any rate, we finally seemed to be winning it.

I've been thinking that too of late, but though I'm not superstitious, I didn't want to say it out loud. No reason to build myself up for disappointment. No reason to stop looking very carefully at the people around me on the bus or at the supermarket.

Operation Defensive Shield saved many Israeli lives, that I don't doubt. As I've mentioned before, though, I can't help observing that the Israeli army was not allowed to finish the job. As a result the terrorists still have plenty of bases, and for all the valuable intelligence that enabled Israel to prevent a series of terrible bombings, it wasn't enough to prevent all of them.

Two successful suicide bombings in four days this week. Five murdered Israelis. Over sixty wounded. Netanya on Sunday, Rishon Letzion on Wednesday. Today's foiled car bomb in Tel Aviv. Two other incidents in which suicide bombers exploded prematurely, killing themselves, but no one else. Another handful of suicide bombers-in-waiting Israel caught before they could strike. With all those planned terror attacks it is perhaps not surprising that a few should succeed.

Wednesday night we went to bed with the news of the suicide attack in downtown Rishon Letzion. A bomber detonated himself amidst a group of locals gathered in a park to play their nightly game of chess or backgammon. Only that morning we awoke to news of a bomber shot by border guards while attempting to cross into Israel.

Thursday morning we could, God forbid, have been in the midst of horrors that would even have dwarfed any of the previous terrible attacks we've suffered. Everyone is talking about the "mega terrorist attack" which miraculously failed.

As a diesel tanker pulled into Israel's largest fuel depot, Pi Glilot, an explosion ripped through the truck, sending flaming diesel fuel spilling out of a gaping hole in the tank. Thank God the onsite emergency team was well drilled and immediately leapt into action, putting out the fire before it could spread to nearby tankers.

Had the emergency crews not reacted so quickly, I don't even want to think of the possibilities. A huge depot, tons of highly flammable gas, petrol and diesel, all in the middle of Israel's most crowded population centre. The northern Tel Aviv suburbs are to the south, the Herzliya industrial zone to the north, and the country's busiest highways surround it. In the worst case scenario, had the main depot exploded, the resulting fireball could have extended for half a mile in all directions. Police estimate that if, God forbid, the attack had succeeded, casualties may have been in the hundreds or thousands.

Thank God, we were spared all that. As of that afternoon the fuel depot was closed until further notice pending security upgrades.


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.