June 18, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Dear family and friends,

Judging by all the foreign news crews at the scene, you already know about this morning's bus bombing. Just to let you know, we're fine. It wasn't in an area of Jerusalem we get to that regularly, as if that is any comfort.

The blast was big. I had a call from a friend in a nearby neighbourhood. She was shaking. She said she could still feel the blast, with the boom resounding in her head over and over. Through her tears she said the US should send Colin Powell over here, not to give the Palestinians a state, but to ride around in Israeli buses all day. Let him and his partners in the European Union do something useful, she said. If they have so much faith in negotiating with the Palestinian terrorists, let them live like ordinary Israeli civilians for a few weeks.

Israeli radio is now reporting 19 dead and 50 wounded. The bus, crowded with commuters and schoolchildren, was heading through southern Jerusalem from the suburban neighbourhood of Gilo towards the centre of town.

The announcer on Palestinian radio reported the news eagerly, essentially justifying the attack based on the origin of the bus route. "It appears that most of the people on the bus were settlers from the colony of Gilo," he said. No criticism of the bombing was expressed in the Palestinian media, except to suggest that the timing was inappropriate; Palestinian condemnations of terror are limited to foreign-language spokesmen.

CNN seems to have taken their cue from the Palestinians. Their reporter on the scene emphasized that Gilo is "what the Palestinians call an illegal settlement." CNN owner Ted Turner was interviewed today in Britain's Guardian newspaper, where he explained that "both sides are involved in terrorism." Funny, I haven't noticed any exploding Palestinian schoolbuses, cafes or discotheques. Maybe Ted should spend a few weeks riding Israeli buses too.

On the newsflash on Israeli TV they're showing the cleanup operation at the scene. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, against the advice of his bodyguards, is visiting the site, slowly, respectfully passing in front of the body bags laid out in a neat line by the road.

Behind him are the remains of the bus. Every time I shut my eyes I see the twisted, blackened bus, the ruins of its familiar red and white panels jutting out skyward at a ridiculous angle.

I know how often I ride on similar red and white Jerusalem city buses. It doesn't matter that I've rarely if ever taken route 32A from Gilo to central Jerusalem. All that matters is that at 8am the bus full of passengers ceased to be.

It could have been any route. How many others have been targeted? How many route numbers today are now also painful reminders of terrorism? The 18 always reminds me of the suicide bombings of 1996, the 6 of the attack in French Hill, the 13 of the Mahane Yehuda bombing, and so on and so on with so many routes.

On the radio morning programme, presenter Carmit Guy interviewed the headmaster of a nearby religious high school, only about 300 yards from the site of the blast. He has been methodically checking the rosters, trying to determine which pupils and staff are missing. He heard the blast during morning prayers. They were reciting Psalms, Psalms that we recite in times of trouble.

Carmit Guy, an avowed secularist, asked him gently if there are any particular Psalms we should be saying. They recite three Psalms every morning in these difficult times, he replied. Which ones? "I cast up my eyes to the mountains, from where will my salvation come?" "From where will my salvation come?" she echoed, her voice almost breaking.

The bomb, packed with bits of metal, did so much damage that by 3 o'clock this afternoon only one body, that of the driver, had been identified. The police have called on anyone who knows that a loved one was on the bus to come to the morgue to help with the identification process.

According to Israeli intelligence five suicide bombers are on their way to Israeli cities. The problem is finding them before they explode. Yesterday there were alerts for Haifa, Jerusalem, the Sharon region (from Netanya to Kfar Saba) and Tel Aviv - pretty much all the main population centres.

In Jerusalem last night the high alert was evident. We were stopped at a makeshift police roadblock in the city. The police were everywhere. Sadly, it didn't help this morning, but then trying to find one bomber in a city of over half a million people is, you'll excuse the cliché, like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Tonight we have plans to go out to dinner in Jerusalem. We won't be cancelling. We're meeting a relative of mine who is here from England here with a solidarity mission.

We joined him this Shabbat at his hotel in Jerusalem. That in itself was a hizuk - an inspiration, a strengthening experience. Not only was there a solidarity mission of British Jews and Christian friends of Israel, but for the first time in a long while this Jerusalem hotel was actually full.

Over Shabbat we met people from other solidarity missions. I was particularly moved by a young Lubavitch rabbi from Palm Springs, California, who came with a few members of his community to volunteer at an Israeli army base.

Shabbat afternoon we walked down to the kotel, the Western Wall, for minha (afternoon prayers). Amongst the women praying by the wall were some French women, also here on a solidarity visit. Walking back we passed what appeared to be a European tour group.

Every Israeli who speaks to these groups begins by thanking them for just having the courage to come. I feel the same way. With the death and hatred that surrounds us, one of the most wonderful things is to see a large group of diaspora Jews and Christians arriving in their tour bus to tell us that we aren't alone. Especially on a day like today.


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.