August 9, 2001 Update

Letters from Israel

Thursday, August 9, 2001

Dear family and friends,

This has been one of the blackest days in Israel for several months now. So far today at least 16 Israelis have been killed and over 130 wounded in three different Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians.

I guess that you've all heard the news about the bomb in Jerusalem. Just to reassure everyone, we're fine, and all the family here is to the best of my knowledge fine. More than 130 wounded are not fine, several of them, even now, hours after the bombing, are still in critical condition, fighting for their lives. Fifteen people are dead, including several children.

What is there left to say on a day like this, a typical hot sunny day in the middle of the school vacations. Mums and dads took their kids out for lunch at the Sbarro pizzeria on the corner of King George St and Yaffo Rd in central Jerusalem. Other people were crossing the busy intersection near the restaurant, right in the heart of Jerusalem. At two o'clock this afternoon, during the busy lunch hour, a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up at the entrance to the crowded pizzeria. Just like that, a flick of the switch in his hand and he turned a quiet summer vacation treat into a hellish nightmare.

What more is there to say. This is who and what we are up against, Palestinian bombers who think they'll go to heaven for blowing up a restaurant full of parents and kids enjoying a special vacation treat.

I was just getting ready to go into Jerusalem when I heard the news. It sounds so trivial now, but on Monday I was in Jerusalem, browsing the end of season sales at the hat shops on King George St and Yaffo Rd. I bought a new hat for Rosh Hashana, the upcoming Jewish New Year and when I got it home I realised that some of the ornamentation had fallen off. I was going to take it back to the store this afternoon to have it fixed. I was aiming for the 1:30pm bus, but I just missed it. My next bus was at 2:30pm. When I heard the news of the bombing just after 2pm I was sorting through my purse, looking for the hat receipt. It is so silly, I know, but I can't stop thinking about it. The hat shop is just across the intersection from the Sbarro pizza place, I walked past it only last Monday. Had I made the 1:30pm I would have arrived at that intersection at around 2pm, give or take a few minutes.

The corner of King George and Yaffo, you can't get much more central Jerusalem than that. Anyone going to downtown Jerusalem passes that corner. All of you who've visited Jerusalem must have passed it at least several times. The pizza shop itself, part of the international Sbarro chain, is popular with religious Jewish visitors especially, tempted by the novelty of a kosher Sbarro restaurant.

As soon as I heard where the bombing occurred my first instinct was to phone all my family and friends in and around Jerusalem. My mind was racing, trying to figure out who to call first, who might have been in the vicinity. It was an almost impossible guess, so many people might just have been out to lunch nearby, shopping in the area during lunch break, taking their kids out - any number of things.

After calling my relatives and immediate friends I realised that there is a limit to the number of people you can call in one day. Several people were out and I couldn't get hold of them. Many cellphones were down with the networks overburdened. Regular phonelines were busy as everyone with friends and relatives in the city anxiously checked on their loved ones. Thank God everyone I spoke to was fine. One cousin had been on her way out to meet friends downtown. One cousin had been a block away, making his way to the restaurant to take his kids out to lunch at Sbarro.

My mind is more at ease, but I'm still worried, there are just so many people who could have been nearby, so many I couldn't reach. The names of the dead are only now being released. The waiting is terrible, the fear tying a knot in your stomach as you hang on to every news broadcast, wanting and yet dreading, to hear when the names of the victims are released, praying that none will be familiar to you. You sit watching the gruesome footage of the wounded being evacuated, then the grim news reports from the hospitals as they interview wounded eye witnesses, hoping against hope that you won't recognise anyone. We have been through this so many times before, but this attack in Jerusalem, in such a central location, is one of the worst for us.

In Ramallah, Hebron, and elsewhere in the Palestinian Authority, and in other Arab countries, people are partying in the streets, clapping, singing and handing out candies as they celebrate the deaths of Israeli civilians, a great victory in their war against Israel. Just as they celebrated after 21 Israeli kids were murdered in the Tel Aviv disco bombing, and when five Israelis were killed in the Netanya shopping mall bombing and when... The first time I saw such celebrations on the TV news I was shocked, now, we already know what to expect.

Not long after today's bombing in Jerusalem there was another attack. A young Israeli was shot and killed by Palestinian gunmen while driving near the Israeli village of Avnei Hefetz, several kilometres east of Netanya. Later this evening another Israeli car was shot at, this time near the entrance to Kibbutz Meirav, near Mt Gilboa in northern Israel. A 19-year-old Israeli woman was killed, and three other teenage girls wounded, one seriously. They were driving home from an evening out in the nearby town of Beit Shean.

I've noticed that the foreign media is reporting this as "the first suicide bombing since the Tel Aviv disco bombing". Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually we've had a lot of attacks since then, over 1000 bombings and shootings. Many Israelis have been killed, many wounded, but they've mostly been murdered one or two at a time, so the foreign media doesn't seem to have noticed.

Despite all these tragedies, all these worlds that have been shattered, we have also known many miracles. Thank God Israel has been able to stop many attacks, sometimes catching suicide bombers en route to bombings, sometimes capturing or killing master bomb makers as they prepare attacks. Sometimes the bomb makers are amateurs or using poor quality explosives and the bombs fail to go off or blows up its makers. Had we not been so lucky today's attack would only have been one of many, rather than the terrible exception, the bomber who got through.

A diary of the major incidents during the last few weeks looks like this:

Friday July 27: A vigilant bus driver found a bomb hidden inside a watermelon on his bus near Jerusalem's Malha shopping mall.

Sunday July 29: This afternoon a car bomb went off in the parking garage of an eight story apartment building in the north Jerusalem suburb of Pisgat Zeev, though fortunately the mechanism malfunctioned and not all of the explosives detonated so the building is still standing.

Monday July 30: A small bomb disguised in a beer can exploded in a supermarket in central Jerusalem. Later an Israeli was stabbed and critically wounded near the Damascus Gate in the Old City. The same day 6 terrorists from Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement blew themselves up in a West Bank village when a bomb they were making exploded prematurely. (They blamed Israel for the explosion.) That afternoon three Israeli border guards were shot and wounded in a drive-by shooting north-east of Netanya. The Palestinian gunmen fled over the border to the nearby Palestinian Authority.

Tuesday July 31: That night five Israeli civilians were wounded in another Palestinian drive by shooting near the Israeli village of Na'aleh, a few kilometres north of Modi'in.

Wednesday August 1: A gardener in a municipal Jerusalem park found a pipe lying in the grass, opened it, saw some powder and tossed it aside - thus unwittingly defusing a bomb.

Thursday August 2: A wary bus driver noticed that an Arab teenager trying to board his bus was carrying a large bag with a wire sticking out of it. When the boy refused to say what was in the bag the driver rushed him, pushing him off the bus and preventing the Palestinian from detonating what turned out to be a huge bomb - even more powerful than the device that killed 21 Israelis in June's Tel Aviv disco bombing. The bus was filled with young Israelis en route to the annual Tzemah "Love and Music" festival by the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel.

Friday August 3: An alert security guard caught a Palestinian woman carrying a large bomb hidden in a packed of detergent who was attempting to enter Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station, the largest in the world. In total this week over fifty mortar shells have been fired at Israeli villages in the Gaza region, wounding three Israeli civilians, including two children, and damaging several homes.

Sunday August 5: Ten Israelis were wounded when a Palestinian gunman opened fire on a busy street outside the Israeli defence ministry in Tel Aviv and across the road from the bustling Azrieli shopping mall. Later that evening Palestinian gunmen opened fire on Israeli civilian vehicles near the Jewish village of Tzufim, east of Kfar Saba, killing a pregnant Israeli woman and seriously wounding her husband and 14-year-old daughter. His parents are friends of my family.

Monday August 6: Israeli security forces caught a Palestinian suicide bomber near Tulkarm, east of Netanya.

Tuesday August 7: An Israeli was murdered near Tzufim, site of Sunday night's shooting. The same day the body of an Israeli businessman was found in Amman, Jordan. A Palestinian terror organisation claimed responsibility. Later that night another Israeli was murdered in a drive-by shooting near the Palestinian controlled city of Nablus/Shekhem

Wednesday August 8: A car laden with explosives en route to an attack in central Israel was stopped by soldiers at a roadblock in the Jordan Valley. Seeing he had been caught the Palestinian terrorist detonated the vehicle, injuring one soldier. Later that day two more Israeli soldiers were wounded when Palestinians detonated a roadside bomb near their jeep close to Nablus/Shekhem.

This is the context for today's bombing. Sometimes it feels like we're living in a computer game where there is always an unexpected threat around the corner and everything you try just leads to another dead end.

The frightening thing is that somehow you almost get used to this terrible way of life, each day bringing more pain and destruction to Israeli families, each day wondering who is next. You live each week one day at a time and then suddenly it's Friday and you sit down and read the weekend papers and the roundup of that week's craziness and it hits you just how many people have been shot or stoned or bombed that week. Your mind reels for a few minutes, and you mourn the dead for a few minutes, and then somehow you get up and get on with your life because that is the only thing you can do, the only way you can go on, the only way to resist the Palestinian terrorists who think that murdering innocents is the fast track to heaven, that a man who blows up restaurants and shopping malls is a hero and that the deaths of civilian men, women and children are cause for celebration.

As a currently popular song by Israeli rockstar Yehuda Poliker puts it (my rough translation):

"That's the way our life has been of late,
It could be better, a disaster might strike.
Good evening despair, good night hope.
Who is next, and who is next in line..."

Shabbat shalom,


Return to home page.

Copyright 2001 by Leiah Elbaum.