June 3, 2001 Update

Letters from Israel

Sunday, June 3, 2001

Dear family and friends,

A few of you have written lately to inquire about my recent silence and to ask whether anything was wrong.

First, we're fine, we appreciate the concern.

Second, I haven't written recently simply because it has been too hard. Every day it seems as though we are struck with a new tragedy and when I sit down to write I feel that my head is reeling from the repeated pummeling. Between the personal tragedies of people we know and the national tragedies which affect Israelis everywhere, it has been an extremely painful few weeks for all of us.

Since May 1, 40 Israelis and foreign residents of Israel have been killed by Palestinian terror attacks and hundreds wounded. And then there was the Versailles wedding hall disaster in Jerusalem, caused human error or carelessness, not terrorist intent, but adding another body blow to an Israeli public already bruised and shaken after over 8 months of Palestinian terror.

I could recount a litany of bombings, attempted bombings, shootings and the like, but I know that a cold list could not convey the feeling of sitting here day in day out knowing that at any time or any place a bomb could go off. Days which begin with the news of which Israeli villages or roads adjacent to Palestinian areas were shot at. All too often the day continues with news of bombs discovered, or God forbid, exploding in some central Israeli town. By late afternoon, certainly by the evening there will be more Palestinian shootings as the terrorists use the cover of dusk and darkness. On a good day we hear the word miracle a lot, and the list of terror attacks ends with 'there were no casualties' or 'police successfully defused the device' or that the terrorist had a 'work accident' and blew himself up in the middle of nowhere while preparing the bomb. On a bad day the news begins with a report of someone being seriously wounded or killed. Then there are anxious hours until the name is released as Israelis call family and friends in the area of the attack with every unanswered telephone a possible sign of the worst. This is our daily diet of events, Israelis being attacked somewhere, be it mortars on Israeli villages in and around Gaza, shooting at Gilo, bombs in Netanya or rocks on the Ramallah bypass road.

May saw so many killed and wounded by Palestinian terror: Israeli Jews and Arabs, foreign workers from Romania, new immigrants. Parents have buried their children. Children have buried their parents. Ordinary people have been murdered while going about their everyday lives. I can't even keep track of all the names anymore, there have been too many.

Of all the hard days of May, a few in particular are stand out in my mind.

When you get up in the morning you never know what you'll be doing that day. On the morning of May 1, Assaf Hershkowitz, aged 31, from Ofra, north of Jerusalem, got up, prayed and then at about 6am he put on a bullet proof vest and drove down the road to fill up his car at a gas station before picking up his Palestinian employees. En route he was ambushed by Palestinian terrorists who strafed his car with dozens of bullets. One hit him in the neck, killing him.

Only three months ago Assaf's father Arieh was murdered in a similar manner. Palestinian gunmen shot him as he drove home from work in the Atarot industrial zone in northern Jerusalem. On the afternoon of May 1 his eldest son was laid to rest beside him in Petah Tikva's Segula cemetery.

Hundreds packed the Petah Tikva cemetery that afternoon, the same crowd which had stood in that very same section of the same cemetery only three months earlier and watched Assaf bury his murdered father. It was a somber, grieving, but dignified crowd. People stood in stunned shock, many wept softly, silently, during the short eulogies. In attendance was Israeli President Moshe Katsav who met Assaf only a few months ago while paying condolence call to the family after the Arieh's murder.

Assaf's wife and I were at high school together. Just over seven years ago we were also students at the same college near Petah Tikva, both with serious boyfriends, both considering marriage. We used to sit at the kitchen table in her dorm and over mugs of tea we'd chat about our plans for the future, marriage, where we'd like to live, what type of wedding dresses we'd like to wear.

We both married, got busy with our studies, with work and setting up home. We lived in various places before settling down in our present homes. It's a time of life when it's hard to stay in touch. Now that we've living in towns which aren't too far apart we'd been trying to arrange a Shabbat together, but somehow the timing never worked out.

A few weeks ago she invited me to join them for the Israel Independence Day festivities in Ofra, where she lives. We had a prior invitation from other friends, so she invited us for the Shabbat after Independence Day. We were planning on going but something came up and once again we were unable to accept the invitation. We saw Hila the following Tuesday at Assaf's funeral. Who would have imagined the week before that it would be our last chance to spend a Shabbat with him.

Just over a week later, on May 9, two 14 year old boys, Kobi Mandell and Yossi Ishran, were savagely murdered by Palestinians while hiking only a few hundred yards from their home in Tekoa, a small village on the edge of the Judean Desert, south-east of Jerusalem. Even by recent standards, the brutality of the murders was unspeakable, two young boys stoned to death and mutilated to the extent that one body could only be identified by his finger prints - even his own father could not recognise the face.

The Mandell family moved to Israel from Silver Spring, Maryland, Jason's home town. The day after the murder a cousin of mine who also lives near Tekoa told me that her children went to the same school as Kobi Mandell, who was in class with her son. Her daughter, a few years older, helped the children acclimatise to their new school upon their arrival from the US.

I didn't know the victims, but I have spent a lot of time in Tekoa. I researched and wrote about Tekoa a few years ago, staying in the homes of local people, talking to them, photographing the village and surrounding desert, hiking in the area. I left impressed by the unique community which had developed there.

I remember the first time I went to Tekoa. The route meanders through Jerusalem, winds around the eastern Palestinian villages of the Bethlehem region and continues through the Palestinian village of Za'atara and the Israeli village of Nokdim, on the edge of the desert, past the towering majestic ruins of Herodian, Herod's castle and fortress. Finally it climbs up a mountainside to Tekoa, perched on ridges above an impressive desert canyon with incredible views of the towards the Dead Sea. The nearby canyon is home to a ruined Byzantine monastery and numerous caves, making it popular with hikers from around the country. It's quite a location. Hoteliers would envy such a view for their resorts. Tekoans are lucky enough to have it in their backyard.

Many Tekoans I met seemed to have a deep, almost mystical, connection to the landscape in which they dwelt. An historian there, who specialises in the early Christian period, was thrilled by the idea that he lived overlooking ancient Herodian ruins. Another man had adorned his living room with the most amazing photographs of the Herodian mountain taken in different seasons and weathers - eerily lit by lightening, glistening in a snowfall, green after the rains. Many hiked in the area regularly.

I remember one man telling me that the landscape of the Judean desert profoundly influenced the spiritual development of children growing up in Tekoa. I thought he was a bit of a starry eyed mystic at first, but after spending time in Tekoa I think I came to understand what he meant. Growing up with a natural wonder straight out of the bible in your backyard as your playground is bound to affect your perception of the world, permeating the soul with a mixture of respect and love for nature, the land and the desert. Kobi Mandell and Yossi Ashiran were innocently enjoying this wondrous natural playground, as do all the children of Tekoa, when they were murdered.

A few weeks later, on the night of May 22 we were at a reception at the Giv'at Ram campus of Jerusalem's Hebrew University. A few of us were standing around saying our goodbyes when suddenly we started hearing huge booms. I confess, most of us jumped at first. Over the past few weeks Jerusalem's Gilo neighbourhood had come under heavy Palestinian fire with several injured, and our natural assumption was that we were hearing another onslaught echoing through the city. Then someone commented that they didn't think that the shooting from Gilo could be heard that clearly from Giva't Ram. Then we saw fireworks, and I remembered it was Student Day and that special festivities were being held at the nearby Israel Museum - very spectacular it was too - once we got over the initial shock.

Driving home that night the radio news reported on a press conference given by Israel's Prime Minister at which he called for an unconditional ceasefire as part of Israel's acceptance of the international Mitchell Committee report on the intifdada. Within hours orders went out to the Israeli security forces permitting them only to fire in self-defence and cancelling all pre-emptive strikes against Palestinian terror bases. Israel had effectively imposed upon itself a unilateral ceasefire challenging the Palestinians to follow suit. The Palestinians called the ceasefire a "public relations move". Israeli Foreign Minister Peres responded that if it was so good for Israel's public relations, maybe it would be good for Palestinian public relations too - we'd all benefit from such a move. It was a glimmer of hope in after very dark, hopeless weeks.

Unfortunately the ceasefire wasn't reciprocated. The next day Asher Illuz, 33, of Modi'in, was ambushed by Palestinian terrorists near the town of Ariel, east of Petah Tikva. He was shot several times and subsequently died of his wounds, leaving a widow and two small children. On the Modi'in residents' e-mail list that week the Illuz family tragedy took the place of the usual mundane notes about flats for rent, cleaning lady recommendations and furniture for sale. Several list members are trying to arrange a fund to provide for the widow and orphans. Illuz is the second Modi'in resident murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Despite the murder, Israel maintained its unilateral ceasefire.

It's late now, so I'll update you on more recent events in my next letter.

All the best,


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Copyright 2001 by Leiah Elbaum.