July 25, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Thursday, July 25, 2002

Dear family and friends,

It was a beautiful full moon evening. The waves crashing along the shore glistened in the moonlight. At intervals along the beach groups of people gathered around bonfires, some partying, others playing with their kids, most just relaxing after a hard day's work. Couples sat embraced watching the sea.

It was the eve of Tu B'Av, the Jewish festival of love, when in ancient times the single women would wear borrowed white dresses and go out into the vineyards to dance and hopefully attract their future husbands.

At one end of the beach a group of about 50 people sat in a circle, each with a drum, all pounding out the same frenetic Middle Eastern rhythm. Behind them was the Mediterranean Sea. In front of them the flames of the bonfire licked high into the night sky, giving an orange tinge to the silvery light of the full moon.

You may have thought this was some exotic religious ritual. No, it was just Jason's annual departmental beach picnic. This year they added some entertainment to the picnic in the form of "the drummers' circle", a group of percussionists who come along with all kinds of Middle Eastern, African and Latin American drums and teach participants some of the basic rhythms, ending with a jam session.

Aside from the drumming it was as usual a very casual affair. People stood around with pita breads full of salad, humous and cold cuts, sipping on chilled beers and orange juices while the kids romped in the sand.

It was just the same as previous years, save that this time three armed security guards kept watch over us. A bunch of picnicking computer programmers and their families is after all a very tempting target for a terrorist.

People have been a bit more on edge since last week's terror attacks. This week two more victims of the Tel Aviv bombing died of their wounds. On Monday Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization called on Palestinian groups to step up terror attacks against Israel. There have been a number of alerts across the country. On Sunday the rail line to Rehovot (south of Tel Aviv) was bombed and the train driver escaped with moderate injuries. Several terrorists have been caught en route to attacks: a suicide bomber near Ramallah; gunmen armed to the teeth near Gaza, on their way to infiltrate a kibbutz. The list goes on.

You'll understand then the relief of many Israelis when we heard that Hamas arch-terrorist Saleh Shehadeh, the man responsible for atrocities such as the bombings of the Dolphinarium disco, the Sbarro pizzeria and the Park Hotel, was killed in an Israeli air strike.

The relief that Shehadeh is dead is tempered by deep sadness that the cost was the tragic deaths of so many Palestinian civilians. It was not meant to be that way. Missions to assassinate Shehadeh had been aborted no less than eight times, because the army was concerned that there were civilians in the vicinity.

Earlier this week there were F-16s over a house in Gaza where Shehadeh was staying. At the last minute Israeli intelligence discovered that there were civilians in the building and the attack was aborted. Had intelligence known that his family were in the building Tuesday night that attack would have been aborted too.

On the rare occasions when unfortunately Israel has killed non-combatants, each time by accident, Israelis are shocked and upset by the tragedy. There is a public outcry. The media ask how it could have happened. Government ministers and senior generals apologise for the civilian deaths. There are inquiries into how the mistake occurred, how the target was missed or why intelligence reports were inaccurate. Disciplinary measures are taken against those responsible for the error.

No one here wants the death of Palestinian civilians. And while people were glad that terror-mastermind Shehadeh was gone, no one celebrated. We don't rejoice in people's deaths, however terrible the enemy.

Our enemy, on the other hand, is very much into celebrating death. For Palestinian terrorists, civilians are the targets, not tragic accidental victims. Our enemies are people who go and murder kids at a pizza parlour and then hold street parties and hand out candies to celebrate the murders. Out of 579 Israelis killed by Palestinians since September 29 2000, 401 have been civilians. Out of 4,287 Israelis wounded, 3,056 have been civilians.

Not only do Palestinian terror groups relish killing Israeli civilians, but they seem to have no qualms about endangering their own. Over and over again we've seen them locate military installations in the heart of civilian areas, run bombmaking labs in apartment blocks, store weapons in private homes and of course shelter terrorists in residential neighbourhoods. They keep civilians around them, knowing that Israel will avoid attacking them when there is a risk of catching civilians in the crossfire. And they have no qualms about leaving booby traps that might hurt their own people, as happened on Thursday when a Palestinian-laid roadmine exploded under a Palestinian bus, injuring ten passengers.

Israelis will keep trying to live, and the Palestinian terrorists will keep trying to kill us. So we'll go to the beach with armed guards and go to weddings with armed guards and do our groceries with armed guards and ride buses with armed guards and check our seats very carefully for suspicious packages and phone the police every time we see someone wearing unusually bulky clothing for the hot Israeli summer.

And come the Jewish New Year in about six weeks' time this will have been going on for two years.


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.