October 27, 2000 Update

Letters from Israel


Friday, October 27, 2000

Dear Family and Friends,

I can start with better news today: roads were closed on Wednesday in many parts of Israel - not due to rioting, but due to flooding. For the first time since the troubles began, something else grabbed the top headlines. Tragically, a four-year-old boy drowned in the floods Wednesday morning as the water reached the height of his mother's neck and she was unable to hold all of her children above the surface.

The middle of this week saw especially heavy rain, in many parts of the country continuing almost nonstop. The centre of the flooding was Tel Aviv, located on the flat coastal plain, which has many older neighbourhoods without adequate storm drains. Certain southern Tel Aviv neighbourhoods near Jaffa get flooded almost every time there is exceptionally heavy rain. The flooding was more widespread than expected, affecting other Tel Aviv neighbourhoods and other coastal cities such as Bat Yam, Netanya and Ashdod. In some places the Israeli navy was called in to help evacuate trapped residents. Several major interchanges were closed on the Ayalon Highway, one of the country's most important arteries.

While flooding has caused damage to buildings and property, at least we're finally getting rain after two dry years, though there is no guarantee that we'll continue to have a wet winter. Despite the trauma suffered by those in flooded areas, at least it's been caused by a force of nature, not by our supposed peace partners. It was great to open the morning paper and see photos of flooded desert canyons. One photo featured an Israeli Bedouin from the southern Negev desert with his trouser legs rolled up to his knees, leading a camel through a seasonal 'lake' in the desert. Gives the term 'ship of the desert' a whole new meaning.

Unfortunately, the more 'normal' news continued as well. Over the last few days there has been a decrease in the number of attacks, but an increase in their severity. Wednesday morning a bomb was set off near the Jewish community of Morag in the Gaza strip, apparently a Lebanon-style ambush aimed at a passing Israeli army patrol. Yesterday (Thursday), a suicide bomber on a bicycle blew himself up at the edge of Gush Katif. Last night another remote control roadside bomb was set off near the Jewish community of Karmei Tzur. The target was passing Israeli civilian vehicles. Fortunately only one Israeli was injured in all of these incidents, but any could easily have ended in multiple casualties.

Yesterday saw another escalation at the Lebanese border, when shots were fired from the Lebanese side towards the Israeli villages of Zra'it and Shtula. Israeli soldiers returned fire. This was the first shooting attack near Israeli border towns since Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in June.

Shooting attacks also continue elsewhere, but at a much lower rate. There have been an average of about 30 shooting incidents a day over recent weeks, but over the last few days it has been down to 4-6 attacks a day. Most of the gunfire has been in Gaza, where Palestinians have opened fire on Israeli positions and at the Israeli side of the Karni border crossing. Palestinians have also opened fire on Israeli vehicles in Gush Etzion south of Jerusalem.

On Wednesday evening Palestinian snipers in the village of Beit Sahur near Bethlehem opened fire at Israeli soldiers guarding the Jewish holy site of Rachel's Tomb. Rachel's Tomb is an Israeli enclave at the edge of Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, close to the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo. Stray bullets struck Gilo, though residents are apparently expected to take comfort from the fact that the Palestinians were really shooting not at Gilo but at Rachel's Tomb. Later that night shooting at Gilo resumed from the direction of Beit Jalla.

Palestinian snipers have also been shooting at the moshav (agricultural village) of Nitzanei Oz, close to the Palestinian town of Tulkarm, 12 km (about 8 miles) east of the coastal city of Netanya. Several houses and vehicles in the village have been hit. As in Gilo, tanks have now been stationed at the entrance to Nitzanei Oz, and so far they have responded to Palestinian attacks with machine gun fire. Before the troubles began the moshav employed about 300 Palestinians, but lately they have stopped coming to work, creating a severe labour shortage. Similar problems are common in the agricultural sector all over Israel. The olive harvest is currently at its peak, and harvest season is in progress for many other vegetables and fruits, but produce is starting to rot in the fields due to the shortage of workers.

Friends and relatives in the town of Ramat Bet Shemesh southwest of Jerusalem tell me that although they do not border any Arab areas, their main access route to Jerusalem is via the Gush Etzion tunnel road, which reaches Jerusalem near Gilo. Between attacks on this road and the shooting at Gilo this route has frequently been closed and they have been taking other routes. Unfortunately one alternate route, which goes via the Jewish town of Tzur Hadassah, has also been problematic due to rock throwing attacks by Palestinians, as it is not far from Palestinian-controlled areas. My cousin says he has been taking a third route, the longest route to Jerusalem, for a while now, because even before the current troubles began there had been sporadic rock-throwing incidents on the other two roads. A friend confirms this, saying rocks were thrown at her a few months ago while driving on the Tzur Hadassah road, though there has been a marked escalation over recent weeks. Ramat Beit Shemesh and Tzur Hadassah are not "settlements" in the "territories", and their residents would by no means consider themselves to be living in disputed lands. Yet they find themselves exposed to Palestinian attacks just the same.

One phenomenon which hasn't been discussed much is the desecration of Jewish holy sites by Arabs. Across the Galilee at least 10 ancient Jewish holy sites close to Israeli Arab towns and villages have been vandalised. In Shfar'am the ancient synagogue and the gravesite of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava were burned, damaging the structures as well as prayer books. Shfar'am is today an exclusively Arab town, though it was originally an ancient Jewish town and it had a Jewish community until 1920. The tombs of Jewish sages from the time of the Mishna, located near the Israeli Arab villages of 'Araba and Kfar Kana, were desecrated as well. Kfar Kana is the site of an ancient Jewish village from biblical times. It is also mentioned in the Christian bible as the site of the miracle of the water turning to wine, making it a Christian pilgrimage site. Elsewhere in the Galilee ancient Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated.

Meanwhile in Efrat, south of Jerusalem, a synagogue was broken into and desecrated by local Palestinians. They turned on all the taps, flooding the synagogue, and destroyed religious books, daubing the walls with swastikas and slogans in Arabic and Hebrew praising Hizballah.

Palestinians continue to riot. Trouble spots included the Palestinian towns of Kalkilya, near the Israeli town of Kfar Saba, Bethlehem south of Jerusalem, Tulkarem east of Netanya, Hebron and Jenin. In one of several firebomb attacks Wednesday, two Israeli soldiers were wounded at the Ayosh junction near Ramallah when Palestinian youths threw a Molotov cocktail at their jeep. The newsreader mumbled through all this in a single sentence; after all, it has become run of the mill in the past few weeks.

One of the few bright spots in all this was another tragedy, a major crash on the Jerusalem-Jericho road involving a Palestinian taxi and an Israeli minibus. The first emergency vehicle on the scene was a Palestinian ambulance whose crew treated both the Israeli and Palestinian wounded. Sadly one Israeli soldier died, despite the attempts of a Palestinian medic to revive him. Several other Israelis and Palestinians were injured.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority leaders, apparently concerned that they may have gone too far in turning Israeli public opinion against them, have lately taken steps to persuade Israelis that they are peace lovers and look forward to renewing negotiations. In particular, they are eager to woo Israeli gamblers back to the casino in Jericho, which has been losing a million shekels ($250,000) a day in revenues. As part of this effort the PA has renovated Jericho's ancient Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue, which was vandalized and set on fire by Palestinian mobs two weeks ago. Though if the Palestinians want Israelis to feel safe gambling in Jericho, it might help if they stopped shooting at the nearby Jewish community of Vered Yeriho.

Despite this effort at public relations, incitement against Israel continues via official Palestinian channels. An Arab TV station recently broadcast a Palestinian Authority-appointed imam (Islamic preacher) invoking the medieval blood libel charges against the Jews. He explained that 'it is part of the Jewish religion to eat blood during the festivals of Pesah and Purim, when they need the blood of youths and children'. The funeral of the Islamic Jihad suicide bomber who killed himself in yesterday's bicycle bombing was televised live on official Palestinian Authority TV today, the first time an Islamic Jihad event has received any coverage on Palestinian television. At the funeral civilians fired shots in the air and there were calls for more attacks against Israel. Some participants marched carrying grenades and wearing belts laden with mock explosives.

On Wednesday the Fatah organisation, Arafat's faction of the PLO, issued a statement calling on Palestinians to restrict their fire. Not because Arafat wants to calm the violence, but because Palestinians shouldn't waste so much ammunition. Gunmen were called upon not to open fire spontaneously, but rather to choose their targets carefully. The statement also called for terror attacks within Israel.

At the same time, in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader in the West Bank, said that attacks will continue. He said that Arafat is in charge and that he and his men are doing what Arafat wants them to. He also revealed that Fatah is working closely with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror organisations, the ones who in recent years have blown up Israeli buses, shops, cafes and markets. Yesterday, however, he appeared on Israeli television to reassure Israelis that the Palestinians want to return to negotiations and do not wish to harm Israelis. It seems the Palestinian strategy is to negotiate with one hand while keeping the other on the trigger.

Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-'Ami has indicated that if suddenly the Palestinians do stop attacking us, Israel will be prepared to go back to the negotiating table, back to the concessions Israel offered at Camp David. He appeared on TV Wednesday looking stressed and anxious, pained by the thought that perhaps the Palestinians really aren't interested in negotiating any more, when they can pressure Israel much more painfully using stone throwers and snipers. It's a terrifying realisation for Israelis, the realisation that perhaps seven years of peace negotiations and territorial concessions and willingness to accept a Palestinian state have led not to the hoped-for peace and reconciliation, but instead to more attacks and a more lethal, more vicious intifada than the one that preceded the Oslo agreement.

I feel as though I'm living in the middle of a Kafkaesque nightmare where everything is turned on its head. The attackers want the world to protect them, the defenders are condemned for daring to defend themselves, the aggressors are upset that their people are getting killed and injured in the war that they themselves started and those who have been attacked are reprimanded for defending themselves too well and not letting enough of their people get killed and injured. The Palestinian rock thrower is innocent and his Israeli victim is guilty. Palestinians send out their children to attack us and we are guilty if we hurt any of them in self-defence. This is madness. Would Americans stand to have rocks thrown at their vehicles day after day? Would the British sit with their arms folded while snipers fired night after night at residential London suburbs? Would the French tolerate frenzied mobs throwing firebombs at their police? But Israel is supposed to suffer all of this, and more, and not to respond in any way, certainly not to open fire on people who attack us with fire.

I don't know how this will end. I simply cannot see a solution. We do not want war, we did not want war, that is why we were negotiating a peace agreement - until those we were negotiating with decided they preferred violence.

We still hope for better news.

Shabbat shalom,



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Copyright 2000 by Leiah Elbaum.