April 28, 2001 Update

Letters from Israel

Saturday night, April 28, 2001

Dear family and friends,

With intelligence warnings of an escalation in terror attacks over last week's Memorial Day / Independence Day commemorations, security measures across Israel were at a peak. Entering Jerusalem's main shopping mall on Tuesday, the eve of Israel's Memorial Day, all shoppers had to pass through metal detectors at the entrances. Security guards were extra thorough in inspecting shoppers' bags and checking for concealed weapons.

Stores closed early at 6pm, and everyone hurried home to arrive before the 8pm memorial siren. I boarded the bus for Modi'in at 7pm, just before sunset. I wondered which route the bus would take. The shortest route from Jerusalem to Modi'in passes by a series of Palestinian villages. Following a handful of terror attacks along that road over the past few months, the buses have avoided that road after dark, instead taking a long detour. What route would we take at twilight?

As the bus collected passengers on its route through Jerusalem, the question of the route arose. "It's still light, take the direct route!" said one man. "Light, what light? I don't see much light" said another. "Take the most direct route, I want to be home in time for the 8pm siren" responded his companion. "Besides, there is a closure on the Palestinian towns tonight. The road should be safe even after dark, the army isn't letting Palestinians use it over the Memorial Day weekend." Finally the driver ruled in favor of the direct route: "There is still enough light for it to be safe."

This was the first time in 7 months that I travelled that road in darkness - twilight here is so short that half the journey took place after dark. Reassuringly, there was plenty of Israeli traffic on the road. Maybe they were emboldened by the closure of the road to Palestinian traffic, or comforted by the bolstered army presence along the route in recent months, or satisfied by the recent capture of the Ramallah terror cell behind most of the attacks on the road. In any case, it only takes 15 minutes to get from the northern outskirts of Jerusalem to the roadblock near Makkabim. That's the entire section of the road that runs next to Palestinian villages. Sometimes it seems silly that we had ever avoided the route.

The security crackdown continued at the entrance to Modi'in. Traffic backed up down the highway, with cars waiting at police checkpoints at the entrances to town. Police inspected each car, shining a flashlight into the vehicle. Our bus was pulled over and boarded by a policeman who checked for suspicious packages. In town, the town centre was closed with yet another roadblock diverting traffic from the evening's memorial ceremony for fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks.

I got off the bus just before 8pm. As I walked home, the memorial siren caught me a few doors away from my building. The quiet side street was almost empty, but the few people out reacted to the siren by freezing to attention in accordance with modern Israeli tradition. One man got out of his car to stand in respect, another stopped while walking into his doorway, and a little girl stood in place as she climbed a staircase. The siren commanded us all to cease what we were doing and unite in the memory of those no longer with us.

The next morning, I went as usual to Kfar Saba's military cemetery for the memorial service for Israel's fallen. There I visit the grave of a classmate killed several years ago in a military helicopter crash.

Traffic is always crazy on Memorial Day. Tel Aviv's Central Bus station was crowded with people hurrying to cemeteries across the country for memorial services and soldiers on leave for the holiday. On the bus I caught snippets of conversation as someone on a mobile phone reassured a worried parent that it would be perfectly safe to visit Kfar Saba.

Actually, I had thought twice about attending this year. Only a few days earlier, on Sunday, a Palestinian suicide bomber had blown himself up next to a bus near the Kfar Saba town centre. An Israeli doctor was killed and over 50 others wounded in the blast. A week earlier two other Palestinian bombs went off near the Kfar Saba central synagogue, and the next day another exploded at a checkpoint just outside the town, near the neighbouring Palestinian-controlled city of Kalkilya. Still, I decided to go as usual. Not that I believe in taking unnecessary risks, but there is no way of knowing when a terrorist might strike, and neither do I believe in cowering in my apartment. Life has to go on.

Central Kfar Saba made Modi'in's security look light. The main street was blocked off by police, as were some surrounding streets. Traffic was diverted through narrow back roads. Heavily armed police and border guards in flak jackets were everywhere. The roads near the central bus station and the military cemetery were patrolled by soldiers in full battle gear manning temporary roadblocks. I have never seen soldiers dressed like that inside an Israeli city before. In fact I've never seen soldiers dressed like that except on news reports from actual war zones. It was chilling.

The streets were filled with throngs of people making their way to the cemetery. Groups of schoolchildren clad in blue and white walked in orderly lines, chatting and singing. At the gate of the cemetery a soldier inspected my bags. Family and friends of the fallen milled around the graves along with soldiers in dress uniforms, making their way to the resting places of their loved ones. The atmosphere was solemn yet warm. Old friends and comrades-in-arms greeted one another, relatives and girlfriends silently contemplated a loved one's grave, a group of yeshiva students recited Psalms.

Just before 11 am, the gates of the packed cemetery were closed. A German camera crew elbowed their way through the mourners, pausing here and there to film their grief or to catch a particularly poignant moment. The soldiers in the crowd snapped to attention. At exactly 11, the mournful siren began to wail. A heavy silence fell upon the crowd. No one moved. Time itself seemed to stand still. Only the faint wind swayed the trees and the birds continued to chirp. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked. Halfway through the siren, a woman standing by the nearby grave of a 19-year-old policewoman broke into hysterical sobs and was comforted by a companion.

Then the ceremony began. An army rabbi read traditional memorial prayers. A bereaved father recited the Kaddish prayer. A government minister said a few words about Israel's longing for peace and the debt we owe those who have given their lives to defend our embattled country. Representatives of the state and the security forces laid wreaths. The solemn and dignified ceremony mixed traditional Jewish and western elements.

As every year, the parents of my late classmate invited friends to come back to their apartment. By now we have come to know each other reasonably, strangers united by the fact that we knew their son. We meet every year at the memorial, a strange mix of communal grieving and, with the years, a reunion of friends. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a son, especially one so young whose life had only just begun. I cannot imagine how it must feel to see his comrades and schoolfriends grow up, marry and go to college and to know that he will always remain twenty-two. His parents are so composed, bearing their grief with such dignity that even though we go to comfort them, we always return strengthened and comforted by them.

Waiting at the bus stop on the way home, a car pulled up and two soldiers in battle gear stepped out. With obvious relief they hastily took off their helmets and flak jackets and removed the magazines from their M-16s, only to get back in the car and drive away. Someone muttered something about them coming back from duty near the checkpoint east of Kfar Saba. Behind the bus stop, city workers were busy setting up a stage and sound system for that evening's Independence Day celebrations. Welcome to Kfar Saba, a border town in central Israel.

Shavua Tov,


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Copyright 2001 by Leiah Elbaum.