May 19, 2003 Update

Letters from Israel

Monday, May 19, 2003
Lag Ba'Omer

Dear family and friends,

The fires tonight should be the joyous bonfires of the Lag Ba'Omer holiday, not the melancholy flickering of memorial candles at the scene of yet another terrorist outrage.

That was my thought this morning as we spent an hour stuck at an army roadblock at the entrance to Jerusalem. A mix of Jewish and Arab motorists frustratedly jockeyed between the slow moving lines of vehicles which snaked back from the checkpoint.

Yesterday morning, only an hour or so after the Jerusalem bus bombing, the lines at that very same roadblock had been short, traffic moving through it at a regular pace, the routine checks just part of the regular rhythm of life. Today the soldiers were more vigilant, paying particular attention to drivers who looked like religious Jews, the disguise used by two of the recent suicide bombers.

The sequence of events is familiar. In an effort to move towards peace, Israel eases travel restrictions on Palestinians and allows more of them to return to work in Israel. Terrorists take advantage of the lifting of the closure to infiltrate Israel, and a new wave of terror strikes Israeli cities.

This time, the restrictions were eased just a week ago during the visit of Secretary of State Powell, as a gesture to the new Palestinian prime minister. The result: over the last 48 hours, six suicide bombers have attacked Israeli targets, killing two in a public square in Hebron, seven on a bus in Jerusalem and three outside a shopping center in Afula.

Afula, in northern Israel, was the site of this evening's murderous attack. Fifty were wounded, thirteen seriously. Were it not for the penchant of Palestinian terrorists to attack this remote small town, few foreigners would probably have heard of it. Visitors to Israel have little reason to stop there, at most passing through on the way to somewhere else.

Its proximity to northern Samaria, just five kilometres from the Palestinian town of Jenin, makes Afula a relatively easy target. It sits right on the main east-west highway from the densely populated coast through the rural Jezreel Valley towards the Jordan River.

Most of my visits to Afula have involved getting lost there while driving through. Through these unintended detours, I've actually seen quite a lot of the town. It's a typical provincial Israeli town, with low-rise concrete apartment buildings and new suburbs with pretty little cottages. Its shops, mall and hospital make it a regional service centre.

Before terrorism brought it to the headlines, most Israelis associated the town with two of our national snacks. It's the roasted sunflower seed capital of Israel and home to a legendary falafel joint where they toss the falafel balls in the air while making up your pita bread sandwich. Oh, they catch them too. Afula's other claim to fame is its starring role in an award-winning Israeli movie, Afula Express, about a pair of ordinary Israelis trying to make the big time.

Viewing Afula from above, it takes on surprising charm. Drive up nearby Mount Gilboa and you'll see the whole Jezreel Valley spread out before you in the mountain's shadow. In the middle of the valley sits Afula, picturesque and serene in the golden late afternoon light, nestled amongst the fields, glittering fish ponds and, of course, its famous sunflowers.

Open the bible and you'll find that Afula rests in the middle of one of the most momentous regions of the country. The fertile earth of the Jezreel Valley made it the country's breadbasket in ancient times. Today, after centuries of neglect, it is once again an important agricultural centre. It was part of the heartland of the biblical kingdom of northern Israel; for a period the nearby city of Jezreel served as the Israelite capital and was later destroyed by the Assyrians.

It was the setting of many historic battles, a natural route for invading armies. Up on the Gilboa, King Saul fell upon his sword rather than face mutilation and death at the hands of the Philistine army.

In ancient Jezreel, the daughters of the Philistines rejoiced in the slaughter of Israelis. Today, Palestinians revel in the killing of modern Israelis in the very same lush valley. If they love this land as much as they claim to, how can they destroy it so eagerly?


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Copyright 2003 by Leiah Elbaum.