March 9, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Motza'ei Shabbat (Saturday night), March 9, 2002

Dear family and friends,

It's after 1am and as of now tonight's casualty list is 14 dead Israelis and over 100 wounded, all in the space of a few hours this evening in three different attacks. The number of attacks stands at, well, I don't know how to count anymore, there is not enough time on the news to even cover all of them.

A few days ago Israeli newspaper columnist Meir Uziel appeared on TV with a bull's-eye target drawn on his forehead. It seems to me the most accurate expression of what Israelis are feeling at the moment.

After one of the bloodiest weeks since this war began, many Israelis decided to stay home this weekend. Palestinian terrorists have made every Israeli public place a target, be it a bus, shop, cafe, hotel, school, wedding hall or road. People feel that the only safe place is at home. Even that is no guarantee - apartment buildings are also fair game for the terrorists.

On Friday morning, at the fortnightly arts and crafts fair in Modi'in we sat in the unseasonably hot sun for hours, but few people ventured out to the market. I just about sold enough to cover the cost of the stall and a couple of cold drinks - and that was because the woman at the stall next to mine decided to buy from me. Another stall holder remarked that her friend has decided only to sell from home for now; she is too frightened to do the usual round of markets, too scared of being in a crowded public place.

Shabbat passed peacefully in Modi'in. Thank God for one day a week when we are forbidden to watch TV or listen to the news. It is vital for our sanity. We didn't hear many helicopters over the Sabbath either, and thankfully no sirens. All was deceptively tranquil, just families enjoying the day off, kids in the playground and couples strolling in the parks.

The week started on a positive note. Not long after Shabbat ends my cousin called to let us know that his wife just gave birth to a girl, their eleventh child. My first act of the new week was to write them a mazal tov card.

This evening we decided to go out to dinner at Luciano's, a little restaurant in Moshav Modi'im (the "Carlebach Moshav"), a small village just down the highway from us, west of Modi'in. Over the years we've become friendly with the owner, and now we go just as much to visit her as for the tasty food.

Arriving at the moshav gate we were surprised to find dozens of teenagers milling around with flaming torches, flags and drums. No, it wasn't a demonstration, just some youthful high spirits celebrating a melave malka, symbolically escorting the Shabbat Queen on her way until next week. A security guard checked who we were and with a beep of the horn the kids made way for us to drive into the village.

We had a pleasant evening at Luciano's chatting with the owner and her friends, listening to the kids put on an impromptu performance in the village green and enjoying the home style food. In the background a tape recorder belted out a mix of music by the legendary singing rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach, and local musicians from the moshav. It felt like a world away from the terrorism around us, as though we had escaped into a time capsule of our old lives, before the war began.

We knew it was too good to last.

As we got into the car to drive home the car radio announced news of an attack on a hotel in Netanya. Terrorists threw grenades and opened fire on guests at a Shabbat Hatan, a pre-wedding celebration for the bridegroom. Two dead, about fifty wounded. A lone policeman eventually managed to kill the gunmen.

Gad Makhnes Street, a side road near the Netanya town centre lined with hotels and apartment buildings. We were there only two months ago for my high school reunion, held at one of the hotels adjacent to tonight's shooting.

Arriving home I found a message on my answer machine from a friend in Jerusalem. As I was dialling Jason switched on the TV news to find out more about the attack in Netanya. A map flashed onto the screen. A map of a very familiar part of downtown Jerusalem. I realised that the map showed the neighbourhood where the friend I was phoning lives.

Another attack, this time a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded Jerusalem cafe. Eleven Israelis murdered and over fifty wounded. Another place I've walked past countless times, another street I used to associate with pleasant walks and evenings out.

My friend answers the phone in a startled, shaky, voice. She says that she heard the blast. She wonders how long we can live like this, how this crazy situation can just go on and on while we give Arafat ever more chances. She was thinking of going out tonight but was too scared. She hasn't been to the cinema in a year because she is too nervous to go to the mall. A friend asked her out tonight but she declined for safety reasons.

I find myself shocked by her tone. We've known each other for years, but I haven't heard her like this since the Iraqi Scud missiles were falling on Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, and even then she didn't sound this bad.

To my surprise I find myself calm and composed even as the scenes of horror unfold on my TV screen. I tell her that Israel has been through worse times. The Arab pogroms against the Jews in the 1920s and 30s, the terror of the 1948 war, the fedayeen raids of the 1950s, the threat of being wiped off the map in 1967, the devastating surprise attack by neighbouring Arab states in 1973. We've been through all that I tell her, we can get through this.

I'm saying it as much for myself as for her. Finally my training as an historian seems to have some practical value.

I'm interrupted by the insistent beep of call waiting on her phone line. She switches to the other line. A few seconds later she comes back to me sounding choked, her voice breaking. "I'll have to get back to you later in the week, I have to go." She hangs up. It doesn't sound good.

I sit with the phone in my hands for several minutes, my mind racing, thinking how many friends and relatives we have in Jerusalem, praying that no one was near Cafe Moment, the terrorist's target this evening.

Jason gives voice to my unspoken fears. "We know so many people who could have been there tonight. We've been so lucky so far, I have a terrible feeling about this." My premonitions have been so correct lately, I don't even want to think about them.

An hour or so later Channel 1 News reports that among this weekend's attacks there were a couple of shootings in the Modi'in region. Within minutes the Modi'in region e-mail lists are flooded with questions and comments. It turns out that last night there was shooting near the village of Hashmonaim, north of Modi'in. Earlier this evening a car was fired upon on the Jerusalem-Modi'in highway, Route 443. Thank God no one was hurt in either attack.

And now it's after 3 and I'm still awake, unable to close my eyes because bombers and gunmen are trespassing in my dreams.

Part of me wants to switch off the radio, dreading the inevitable list of names which will probably be released in the next few hours.

Part of me finds comfort in the soothing tones of the radio announcer, tragically expert in the post terror-attack routine of sad songs and gentle commentary.

My mind turns to Psalm 23, the psalm traditionally sung at se'udah shlishit, the Shabbat afternoon/evening meal. It is so familiar, almost cliched, but the verse keeps running through my head along with the haunting melody Carlebach wrote for it: "Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me."

For millennia this has been our ancestors' mantra, through the pogroms and the blood libels, the expulsions and the persecutions. This has kept our people through the horrors of exile and the terrors of foreign occupation. Now it belongs to this generation. It is our hope, our faith.

Despite the pain, despite the worry, I feel strangely quiet. It is the calm of resignation and of resolve, the knowledge that this war is unlikely to end any time soon and that all that we civilians can do is to muster all our reserves of strength to face the coming trials and tragedies.


Return to home page.

Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.