October 24, 2000 Update

Letters from Israel


October 24, 2000

Dear Family and Friends,

The Palestinian revolt continues here. In many areas bordering Palestinian-controlled zones attacks remain a daily occurrence. Not a day goes by without the Palestinians attacking Israeli vehicles, residential neighbourhoods or military posts.

These events have become so common that even the Israeli media no longer devote time to all of them. Daily traffic reports now include as a matter of course a list of roads closed due to Palestinian or Israeli Arab rock throwing, shooting or other attacks. When driving to work, Israelis in many parts of the country now have to factor in possible attacks, as well as traffic, when planning their route.

On Saturday night Israeli Arabs threw rocks at an Israeli bus en route to Tiberias as it passed the Arab town of Mosirifa, not far from the Meggido Junction in the southern Galilee. One passenger was injured and hospitalised in nearby Afula. Israeli Arabs from a village near Nazareth attacked a bus en route to the town of Migdal Ha'emek, smashing windows. Both buses were on major arteries - attacks on these roads are the Israeli equivalent of, say, rock throwing on the New Jersey Turnpike or the M4 in England.

The lynching of Israeli civlians also continues. In Jerusalem this week a Jewish family of six, including four small children, were set upon by a Palestinian mob while driving from the City of David, just south of the Western Wall, to Mount Scopus. The Palestinians, wielding axes, clubs and rocks, surrounded the car and set about attacking from all sides. Despite the odds the family managed to save themselves by accelerating rapidly, charging through the barriers of blocks and burning tires the mob had set up, escaping with their lives and light injuries.

On other roads Jewish vehicles have also been shot at. The tunnel road connecting Jerusalem with towns to the south of the city, such as Efrat, has become a regular site for Palestinian snipers who wait at the end of the tunnel and take potshots at Israeli cars, buses and even ambulances. In some cases, foreign television crews accompany the snipers, waiting for a good 'shot'. A few days ago Palestinian snipers opened fire on a bus near the Jewish town of Tekoa, at the edge of the Judean Desert, southeast of Jerusalem. The Jewish community of Psagot, north of Jerusalem, and the Jewish Quarter in Hebron are regular targets for Palestinian snipers night after night. In the last few weeks, families there have become used to sandbagging their windows and sleeping in rooms which face away from Palestinian controlled areas.

This is just a sample of the many attacks that take place each night (most attacks occur after dark or in the early morning).

Perhaps the most serious recent development has been the escalation of attacks on residential areas. The southern Jerusalem suburb of Gilo borders the Palestinian-controlled towns of Beit Jalla and Bethlehem, from which Palestinian snipers have been taking potshots at apartment buildings and houses in Gilo. The frequency of attacks has increased in recent days. On Friday night Palestinian gunmen opened fire just as many families were making kiddush and some synagogues were still in the middle of Simhat Torah hakafot festivities. In response, an Israeli army tank fired one warning shell into the valley between Gilo and Beit Jalla, while warning Beit Jalla residents to leave their homes. Beit Jalla residents began to flee in fear and the shooting stopped - at least for that night.

Meanwhile homes on the street facing Beit Jalla were reinforced with more concrete barriers. Sunday night, gunshots were fired from Bethlehem, which borders Gilo from another angle, allowing the snipers to target other parts of Gilo, areas which were sheltered from the Beit Jalla snipers. Twelve apartment buildings were hit, including several direct hits into bedrooms and living rooms. By a miracle no one was hurt, though there were several close calls. Bullets narrowly missed a nursing mother in her apartment. Another family saw a bullet whiz above their heads as they sat on the sofa watching TV. Another bullet hit a family's bedroom closet, going in one side and out the other, piercing holes through all the clothes hanging inside. To date 28 Gilo apartment buildings have been hit by Palestinian snipers. Some Gilo families have taken to sleeping in the kitchen, as all their bedrooms face Palestinian towns. One family has taken shelter in the windowless stairwell of their apartment building after bullets struck their living room.

Sunday night, the Israeli army stepped up its response, directing heavy fire at the sources of the gunfire in Beit Jalla and Bethlehem. Last night (Monday), firing on Gilo resumed. Israel shut off power to parts of Gilo, creating a deliberate blackout in the hopes that the Palestinian snipers won't shoot at something they can't see to target. Israeli intelligence has recently suggested that Arafat is encouraging attacks from Bethlehem, hoping to provoke Israel into attacking Bethlehem in response. Then he could appeal to sympathy from Christians around the world, and the Vatican in particular, to rally to the defence of their holy city.

I recently received a note from a friend worrying about me living here in the 'middle of a war zone'. From what little I've seen of CNN (we're not subscribed to cable) I can understand why she used those words. From CNN the whole of Israel does indeed look like a war zone.

Yet in most of the country it's life pretty much as normal. Go to any Israeli city, such as Herzliya, Beersheva, Ashkelon or Petah Tikva, and you'll see people going about their daily business as though there were no crisis and no intifada. Even in towns that now border trouble spots, like Kfar Saba, Jerusalem, Rosh Ha'ayin, Bat Yam and many others, people are living their lives. There may be extra police patrols and stepped-up security checks, people may be more attentive to the news than usual, and tourism has of course suffered badly, but by and large people are acting as though nothing is wrong.

Alongside this normalcy, though, there are areas where life has been severely disrupted, where people live under fear of attack or siege. The distance between these areas may not be large; some streets in Gilo have been targeted by automatic gunfire while others are beyond the range of snipers in Bethlehem. Palestinians have attacked Israeli vehicles on the road from Modiin to Jerusalem, but here in Modiin life continues as normal.

So no, the country isn't one large war zone - but it feels like it's scattered with small ones. And even many people living in peaceful areas have had to change their routines, at least in small ways.

Friends from overseas have also been asking why Israeli soldiers have been shooting at 'unarmed' demonstrators or rioters, as for the most part the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs have 'only' been throwing rocks. How can the Israeli police and army claim they are firing in self-defence when they face only 'unarmed' civilians? The clearest answer was in the footage from the Ramallah lynching two weeks ago. A crowd armed only with sticks, stones, knives and bare hands is more than capable of killing policemen or soldiers. Across the country Israeli police and soldiers have faced Israeli Arab and Palestinian mobs in the same frenzy of hate and bloodlust as the lynch crowd in Ramallah. These Israelis knew that if they were caught by the crowd their fate would be a similar lynching, from which they might or might not escape with their lives. So they opened fire, with tear gas or rubber bullets if possible, with live fire if necessary. A crowd of people with murder in their eyes don't need guns to kill or maim.

Rocks are weapons too. They can wound and kill. Over the past few weeks of violence at least one Jewish Israeli motorist has died and many have been wounded, several seriously, when rocks were thrown at their cars by Israeli Arabs or Palestinians. 'Stone throwing' does not mean that kids are throwing pebbles. It means that large rocks the size of people's fists or heads are thrown with force, smashing car windows and shattering glass everywhere. It means that a shower of bricks rains down on a vehicle or person from all sides. It means breeze blocks (cinder blocks) are pushed off road bridges or roofs onto passing vehicles, crushing the car and passengers inside. This isn't nonviolent protest. It's lethal.

In many cases, in particular when a stone-throwing mob charges a military guard post, the stone throwers are defended by Palestinian police snipers armed with rifles or machine guns. The moment the Israeli soldiers, often just a few individuals facing a mob of hundreds, shoot in self defence in the air or at people's legs, the Palestinian snipers return fire - and shoot to kill. The stone throwers are just the first wave, intended to force a response and to provide an excuse for the Palestinian snipers to open fire. On television, of course, it looks like an 'unarmed' demonstration.

What's frustrating is that the constant barrage of attacks against Israelis rarely gets reported in the international media. I was shocked to find a British newspaper report on the events in Gilo as a "gunfight" between Israelis and Palestinians, as if it hadn't been preceded by a week of unprovoked sniping attacks at Israeli civilian homes. Meanwhile, the world media constantly report that almost all of those injured and killed have been Palestinians, as if that means that they are therefore innocent. Casualties are overwhelmingly on the Palestinian side because large Arab mobs attack small Israeli outposts and villages. But because Israelis have been successful at defending themselves against attack, or, in many cases, just lucky, the Israeli body count has been mercifully low. That doesn't make Israel the aggressor; nor does it make it any less legitimate to fight in self-defence.

I've been meaning to send out something for a few days now, so I'll finish here, though there is still much to be said. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat may have told Israeli prime minister Barak to go to hell, but right now it feels as though Arafat is taking all of us, Israelis and Palestinians, down that road as he gleefully continues to encourage violence.

We pray for peace but Arafat seems to be quite clearly preparing for war.



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Copyright 2000 by Leiah Elbaum.