January 4, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Friday, January 4, 2002

Dear family and friends,

About 20 minutes ago Jason arrived home from the grocery store and excitedly urged me to turn on the TV. Judging from his expression I guessed that he wasn't bringing news of an attack. Hopefully. I turned on the set to a news flash about the interception of a ship smuggling weapons to the Palestinian Authority. The vessel belongs to the Palestinian navy and its crew are Palestinian navy personnel. The Israeli patrol which intercepted it discovered a huge cache of arms, mostly from Iran, including mines, grenades, explosives, ammunition and mortars.

Perhaps most worrying of all, though, the Palestinian ship also contained crates full of long-range Katyusha rockets with a range of 20 km (12 miles) - enough to put almost every major Israeli population centre within range, from the southern coastal cities of Be'er Sheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod, to the Tel Aviv suburbs, to the northern cities of Afula and Hadera and the Israeli capital Jerusalem and all its suburbs. Israel's northernmost towns and villages are already in range of Hizbollah gunmen's Katyushas based in southern Lebanon, and in the past Hizbollah hasn't hesitated to fire them at Israeli towns such as Kiryat Shmona and Nahariya. Israelis are all too aware of what Katyushas can do to a populated area - for years northern residents have lived with their bomb shelters ready because Hizbollah lobbed Katyushas at them from time to time.

Good thing American peace envoy General Anthony Zinni is back in town. We hope that this time his visit won't cost us so many Israeli lives. Last time he was here, a month ago, Israel was hit by a wave of Palestinian terror attacks, with over forty Israelis killed in just about a week. More Israelis were killed in that week than in any entire month since the Palestinian onslaught began in September 2000.

Now, like then, Israel has pulled back its army from many positions as a goodwill gesture. Palestinian security forces have been granted freedom of movement. Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks have been removed from almost all Palestinian areas and roads have been reopened to Palestinian traffic. In the past, such measures have given Palestinian terrorists the opportunity to resume their open season on Israelis.

I was thinking about Zinni's visit yesterday, my weekly Jerusalem day. Riding on the number 18 bus down the city's central Jaffa Road I listened to the news reports on Israeli withdrawals and the relaxing of security measures around Palestinian towns. In 1996 the number 18 bus was twice targeted by Palestinian suicide bombers, leaving dozens of Israelis dead. The route passes the now reopened Sbarro restaurant, bombed last August, and Zion Square, bombed during Zinni's last visit here. Further down the road it passes the flower store where a car bomb packed with mortar shells exploded last spring.

It's a chilling reminder of why Israel had to impose such tight restrictions on Palestinian travel in the first place. The only reason things have been relatively quiet lately is because Israel has been taking stringent action to curtail the terrorists' freedom of movement, including many successful strikes against terror bases in which many have been arrested or killed while preparing attacks.

I wasn't the only one thinking about Zinni and whether there would be more bombs. A couple of women sitting near me were discussing the situation. One was frightened about the Israeli withdrawals. Her friend responded by telling her to keep praying that the weather stayed cold. "When it snows in Jerusalem no one can get around, it's the best way to keep the bombers out."

Continuing down to Queen Shlomtzion Street, the road was clogged with traffic bottlenecked in the narrow street. For once the cause wasn't road closures due to suspect packages, but a "Breslev-mobile", a garishly decorated van festooned with Breslev mantras, blaring out Breslev Hassidic music. An ecstatic gaggle of Breslev Hassidim gaily whirled and hopped about around the vehicle - and on top of it - spilling into the road and blocking traffic.

They were out trying to bring joy to the people of Jerusalem, but they had picked a really lousy place to set up. "If they were working they wouldn't be dancing" commented a grizzled old man behind me. "It's freezing outside, they're just trying to keep warm," joked his companion. "Dancing is good for all our souls," countered a third man, "especially in times like these."

On my way home I got on another jam-packed bus to the central bus station. The driver drove like a maniac, even worse than the usual urban bus drivers. One particularly sharp stop sent a bunch of us standing in the corridor toppling into each other like a pack of human dominos. As an elderly lady and all her shopping baskets fell onto me I was pushed into a soldier and narrowly missed impaling myself on the barrel of his M-16, coming away with a beautifully bruised hip. While too late, he moved his gun so that it wasn't blocking the aisle.

At the Central Bus Station it was business as usual. The shiny new bus station was purposely designed with a row of checkpoints at the entrance, increasing the number of people who can be searched at any one time, and thus avoiding the bottleneck that would result if there were a single entrance. Thursday is one of the busiest times of the week, with students making their way home, soldiers on leave, and anyone travelling for the weekend. Even with half a dozen checkpoints there was no way to prevent the lines for inspection stretching out into the street.

As I stood at my bus stop huddled into my bulky winter coat, trying to keep out the stinging cold wind, a couple of women sat down beside me. One of them turned to me and commented: "It's so freezing today I swear it's cold enough to snow." I could certainly second that, inside my fleece-lined boots my toes were freezing into solid blocks of ice.

Shabbat shalom,


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.