September 5, 2001 Update

Letters from Israel

Wednesday, September 5, 2001

Dear family and friends,

Yesterday morning when I heard the radio-alarm clock click on at 5:58am with the daily recitation of the Shem'a prayer I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. In a dreamlike state I vaguely heard the prayer, followed by the six o'clock news and then the reassuring dulcet tones of Hayim Zissovitch, the morning news programme presenter. Then I drifted off soundly to sleep again.

I woke up at 7:06am in a panic, remembering that a) I was attending a course in Jerusalem this week b) that classes started at 8:40 c) that yesterday the 7:30am bus didn't get me there in time and so this morning I had planned to take the seven o'clock bus. Frantically I jumped out of bed only to stop suddenly as my foot hit the floor and pain seared through it. I tried again, more gently this time, acutely aware now of the tenderness of the ball of my foot.

The night before, my flamenco classes had resumed again after the summer break, and my teacher had erroneously been assigned a classroom with a slippery stone floor. I had slipped during warmup and stubbed my foot. Now it was coming back to haunt me. Course or no course I wasn't going anywhere. I crawled back into bed, propping up the injured foot on a couple of pillows, and drifted off to sleep again.

Just before eight o'clock the regular broadcast was interrupted by news of an explosion in Jerusalem. A Palestinian suicide bomber had detonated himself on Nevi'im Street, with several people injured, including a policeman who placed himself in front of the bomber, saving passersby. Nevi'im Street. All at once I was wide awake again. I checked the clock. I remembered the bus I was supposed to take that morning. If I had caught my bus I would just be getting off on Nevi'im Street at around 8:45am.

Reports started to come in about exactly where the bomber had exploded himself - right next to the Bikur Holim Hospital and the adjacent Yad Sarah offices, an organisation which distributes medical equipment to the needy. I relaxed slightly, realising that my bus stop was a few hundred yards from the site. Still I felt jittery butterflies in my stomach at the thought of how close I would have been had I caught my bus. Never have I been more relieved to have overslept - or to have a bruised foot.

This morning, Wednesday, my foot was feeling better, so I went in to Jerusalem. Just as I arrived at a bus stop on Jerusalem's central Jaffa Road to catch my connecting bus, a police bomb disposal van sped past, sirens wailing, driving in the direction of the Central Bus Station. Then all the traffic was stopped, creating a massive jam and stranding people at bus stops, while more police gathered to prevent anyone travelling towards the bus station.

About twenty minutes later it was all over, a false alarm - this time. Eventually the buses got through the chaos and I was on my way again. As the bus continued through the heavy traffic down Jaffa Road another police bomb disposal van passed us, this time heading in the opposite direction. Judging by the lack of mention on the evening news it was thankfully another false alarm.

On Monday, however, four real bombs exploded in residential Jewish neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. Miraculously they caused "only" minor injuries. Police have been on extra high alert ever since. Security was tight all over the city, with armed police and soldiers everywhere and police and army jeeps making regular patrols. The cafes and hotels I passed on the bus all had security guards outside and in, as does the women's college I'm studying at. Having your bags searched is a way of life here.

I also noticed something else on Jaffa Road. The bombed out remains of the Sbarro pizzeria has been boarded up with wooden planks, and the hoardings have been painted blue and white, the colours of the Israeli flag. On one side elegant Hebrew calligraphy proclaims "Sbarro loves Jerusalem". Around the corner a hand-painted sign announces that Sbarro will be re-opening on Elul 24 5761 / September 12 2001. A fine example of the Jerusalem spirit.

Good night, and may it be a quiet one.


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Copyright 2001 by Leiah Elbaum.