April 9, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Tuesday, April 9, 2002
Holocaust Memorial Day

Dear family and friends,

A few hours ago I arrived home in Israel. It felt so good to see the familiar Tel Aviv skyline through the plane window, to feel the aircraft touch down on Israeli soil, to hear the traditional applause of Israeli passengers as the plane taxied on the runway.

It felt so good to feel the moist, warm, Israeli spring air on my face as I walked down the steps from the plane.


On the flight to the US a few weeks ago the plane was half empty. On the way back to Israel it was packed - and not only with Israelis returning from the Passover holiday, but also with Jewish and Christian tourists and pilgrims.

The airport was bustling, with several very full flights arriving at once. The long lines and crowded luggage carousels were gratifying. Yes, many, many foreign visitors are staying away, but the passport control lines for non-Israeli citizens were long and busy; people are still coming, despite the news.

The first thing we did upon leaving customs was to buy a newspaper. As Jason returned the American cellphone we had rented, I sat guarding the luggage, catching up on the headlines. Tough fighting in the war against terror in Jenin. Under heavy American pressure, Israel is withdrawing its forces from Tulkarm and Kalkilya. Hizballah is attacking northern Israel from southern Lebanon. Welcome home.

It feels weird to have just flown in from the US. The American position is painfully frustrating. While fighting his own global war against terrorism, President Bush seems to be smothering Israel with words of honey. He expresses his understanding of Israel's right to self-defence, implies that he sees Arafat as an untrustworthy terrorist, yet in the next breath he applies the thumbscrews on Israel's campaign to actually root out the terrorist havens across the Palestinian Authority.

Every time America calls on Israel to withdraw, to show "restraint", the Palestinian terrorists are emboldened in the expectation that they can continue their assault with impunity, that they just have to hold out until US pressure prevails.

For now, though, Israel seems to be thumbing a collective nose at American pressure. As an Israeli in the airport taxi rank commented, "What are the Americans going to do to us, bomb us? We're already dying every day." Israel will accommodate the Americans to an extent, wrapping up less-critical operations, but it can't afford to leave this job half-done. The stakes are too high.

We are encouraged, though, by our chance encounters with ordinary Americans during our vacation their. When people hear where we live, they express their concern for our wellbeing and support for Israel's war on terror. A shop assistant, a trucker, a postal worker, a gas station attendant, a press photographer, fellow birdwatchers, each in his own way offers words of support and encouragement. "I pray for Israel every night." "America is with you." "I tell friends Jerusalem should be the first place they visit abroad." "I think we should let you guys finish the job." We were moved by the outpourings of sympathy and encouragement.

In the taxi on the way home from the airport the driver had the news on, a mix of reports on cabinet politics, American diplomacy and commemoration events for Holocaust Memorial Day. Suddenly the military correspondent broke in with a report of 13 Israeli soldiers killed and 7 wounded by Palestinian booby traps in a building in Jenin. We gave a collective "oy", each person feeling the pain of loss. We didn't even know who had been killed, only that as Israelis they are flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood.

It is small comfort, but especially today, on Holocaust Memorial Day, it means a lot that the thirteen Israelis killed today were soldiers who died fighting the terrorist enemy in Jenin and not Israeli civilians shopping in central Jerusalem or attending a seder in Netanya.

In the twelve days of Israel's counter-offensive against Palestinian terrorism successful terror attacks against Israeli civilians have virtually ceased. If soldiers must lose their lives to defend civilians, that is the unfortunate price of self-defense.

Israel is in a difficult war, and if we were America or NATO or certainly one of our neighbouring states, we would have solved the problem of these urban terror bases by bombing them into rubble. But Israel does not want to do that in a dense urban area where civilians and terrorists live side by side, in the same buildings. That is why Israeli soldiers are going the more dangerous route of house to house searches, and that is why they are so exposed to Palestinian snipers and booby trapped buildings and streets. This is the best way to minimize civilian casualties, even as the terrorists shelter behind civilians, using women and children, medics and ambulances, even Christian clergy and ancient churches, as human shields and camouflage.

The Israel radio correspondent in the Palestinian areas reports on exactly how the ambush was set, how in the course of the fighting in Jenin Israeli soldiers have found unprecedented quantities of explosives and booby traps, some containing as much as 100 kilograms of dynamite a piece. Today the terrorists lucked out and are proclaiming a great victory.

"We are a stupid nation!" our taxi driver curses over the news reports. "Damn it, we ought to lay into those bastards harder!" The words hang in the empty air and we know exactly how he feels. Every Israeli knows exactly how he feels.

Continuing along the road to Modi'in we pass a crowded parking lot on the edge of a nearby forest, next to the Holocaust memorial for the Jews of Zaglembie, southern Poland. Even as we're remembering the millions of Jews murdered by Hitler, we're burying the victims of today's war against the Jews. The difference is that today we have a state and an army to defend us.

Entering Modi'in we pass the by the now standard police checkpoint at the entrance to town. Welcome home.

Yes, things are tense here, but it is still good to be home.


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.