with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Living Under Siege in Israel – 16 Months of Intifada

It is now 16 months after the riots at the Al-Aska Mosque near the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, believed to be initiated by Arial Sharon’s visit to the Mosque. It is almost exactly one year since Prime Minister Ehud Barak was voted out of office in an emergency election. Members of the Israel Government and the public protested his lack of “strength” against the Palestinian Authority, believing him unable to control the violence. They also believe Barak was going to give away too much to keep the peace. His replacement, Arial Sharon, a former army commander and symbol of murder and hatred for the Palestinians, has been in office a year and nothing much has changed. I sit here listening to the news, the violence escalating by leaps and bounds and I wonder about all I knew before, and how much I have learned since.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, scene of the starting riots of the Palestinian Intifada, photo by Lorelle VanFossenIt is clear now that what many believed was an instantaneous expression of anger to Sharon’s visit was an organized act, carefully scripted. Israel continues to claim that Arafat is the guiding force behind the violence, that he permits the attacks, suicide bombers, and escalation to continue. Arafat, now restrained from his jet-setting around the world from leader to leader, is now forced to spend time with his people under a lock down by the Israelis. He cries out that he is putting out 100% effort to stop the violence but the Israelis have tied his hands by keeping him in one place. The math doesn’t add up for me as 100% effort means visible results must be felt. Maybe for Arafat 100% efforts means “I did the best I could, what else can I do.” It adds up to “not much”. If Israel is really “tying his hands” then he can’t give 100%, so why is he saying that? Again, I see talk without evidence of action. He appears to comply with Israel’s demands by arresting terrorist leaders, but a few days after the media’s interest dies down, he releases them. Why bother?

Prime Minister Sharon has his hands tied as well. While Arafat works through his dictatorship-disguised-as-a-semi-democracy, Sharon works within a socialistic/parliamentary style democracy bound by the game playing of his multi-party government. Every special interest group and government party want Sharon to do this and that and not do this and that. Some want him to crush the Palestinians to the ground, pushing them back to the other Arab countries or forcing them to “be a part of Israel or shut up”. Others want to just put a wall around the Palestinian areas and force them to declare themselves a state and learn to live independent from Israel and the other Arab countries on their own, just as Israel was forced to do. There are others, a minority now, who want to keep talking, to find a way to make peace, but their voices are often drowned out by the screams of ultimatums. Bound by his government, Sharon is also hog-tied by the international forces which either support openly or covertly Israel. While it seems the US is the major controlling influence, Sharon must also bear the reprisals and influence of the European Union, Russia, Britain, and many other countries. As a legitimate country, Israel must work within the treaties and agreements which link it with the rest of the world through trade and industry, as well as humanitarian and military efforts a responsible country shares with its neighbors and partners. Let’s not forget that even while battling this current Palestinian uprising, Israel has been among the first in line around the world with supplies, tools, and rescue services for earthquake, flood, and other victims around the world. Their efforts are done quietly, often completely out of the public eye, but they are done. These are the responsibilities of running a country as part of the global economy, something Arafat keeps his people from participating in.

Who is right and who is wrong? Does it matter any more? What matters is probably that there are too many chefs trying to make the soup on both sides. What I do know for sure is that our perception about the violence has changed dramatically.

As we came to accept the constant inflow of bad news, our attitudes and behaviors changed. At first, news of a suicide bombing would send me running home in a panic, plastering my soul upon the television absorbing the heartache, misery, and horrors. Brent and I would call each other with minute by minute accounts of what we knew, he from the Hebrew sources as he became more fluent, and me from CNN and BBC. Slowly, it changed to a comment during dinner as we discussed the day. Then it became a mention of “Did you hear the news?” “Yeah.” And the conversation would end. Life went on, day after day, untouched by the “reality” shown on television. My mother was the first to visit us here. I didn’t worry much about keeping the fear level down with her as she is Kent VanFossen inspects a bomb detonator located next to the entrance of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenaccustomed to a variety of situations and adapts fairly quickly. She was reassured that the vision of Israel she sees on television in no way reflects the reality of life here. Hot spots will be hot spots, and if you learn to avoid them, they don’t seem to touch you. Sort of.

Two other friends spent a couple weeks with us just after my mother left, and then we had the heat of the summer to ourselves, the attacks coming and going like waves on the ocean, sometimes still, sometimes pounding. In the fall, as the summer heat left and people started to move around more, the violence grew again. Then came September 11 and the world tilted on its axis. Then came the attacks on Afghanistan, and Brent’s parents went against the tide of the media and friends and family to visit us in Israel in November, a year after the Intifada began. Having never been overseas, we worried about their responses to the different lifestyles as well as the threat of violence that we live with every day.

I took care to keep the television turned off and the news from them as best as I could. Yet, when we went near some of the hot spots, we had to talk about it. Using the techniques I’ve mentioned, we calmly and matter-of-factly discussed the “what ifs”. What if there is a police warning about a bomb? How will they know since they can’t speak the language? What should they do? What should we do if separated? Where should we go? We problem-solved all of the “what ifs” and made plans. In Jerusalem, the anxiety was a little higher, but they just accepted that this was the way life was here, and this is just how you have to live your life. They quickly got used to the purse and bag checks at all the main shops and malls, and the omnipresent flashing lights of the security and police forces. When we walked past a brand new memorial for the teenagers lost in the bombing of the Dolphinarium Disco in Tel Aviv, they honored it like it was part of history and not just something that happened a few weeks before. Just the cost of creating a new country and maintaining peace, I guess they thought.

Personally, I have a hard time understanding anyone who believes violence is an answer. I’ve lost a lot of respect all around for those who choose the easy way out through violence instead of putting all their energies into coming up with a peaceful end to the conflict. The concept that “talk is cheap, I want to see action” implies that action will never come from talking. Is this backwards thinking?

Two things happened that made me realize how desensitized I had become to the violence around us. My father and I were both fairly sick with the flu just before Christmas. He had arrived a week before for a month long visit and was trying to find his feet on his first trip far from home. We were watching television when a big booming explosion rattled the windows. I calmly looked at him and explained, “That’s what a suicide bomber sounds like.”

News from the Front
What you don’t hear coming out of the news from Israel is what doesn’t happen. Thousands of bombs are caught before they go off, sometimes as many as 25 in one day. Here is a synposis of a recent news story:

Bombers planned to blow up restaurant
Jerusalem Post, Feb. 22, 2002
“A crowded beaschside restaurant was the bomber’s real target last August reveals Hebrew weekly Aman Haifa. The Shomron Army Court indicted Wa’il Kassem from Jenin and Nabil Harzalla from the Galilee village of Aylot. The two were accused of attempting to set an explosive device in Haifa… According to the indictment… the two were driving in Haifa with the bomb in their car, a Volkswagen. They got it from Geba resident Majad Fahuouri, wanted by the security forces for allegedly planting several explosive devices within Israel… Harzalla suggested planting the device at the Nazareth police station, but Kassem refused… traveled to Haifa looking for a suitable site, ‘but initially failed to find one.’ Then they went to the South Beach restaurant where they sat down to have a beer. Seeing that the place was crowded, Kassem suggested that they bury the bomb in the sand by the restaurant, but Harzalla turned the idea down. They went on looking for suitable sites, including an apartment building and the railway track near Kiryat Ata, but apparently couldn’t make a decision… they were arrested on August 10 and the security forces detonated the bomb…Hazalla’s lawyer says that his client was forced to do what he did under threat of death if he didn’t comply.”

He just sat there, unable to do much more than take it in. A few seconds later, another exploding sound shook the cement apartment. “That is NOT what a suicide bomber sounds like,” I laughed weakly.

“Those are sonic booms,” my father wanted to believe. I agreed and told him we would call them sonic booms if it made us feel better. The need to rush to the phone or television to see what was happening wasn’t there any more. I told him that we would finish watching this program and in a half hour or so there would be news. Too sick to fuss over it, he went along with me. We found out later that the Israel Air Force was chastised for flying too low over Tel Aviv and that thousands of calls reporting a bombing were made to the police, but it really was the jets.

The second stunning discovery of our acceptance of the whole situation was a month later while having my hair cut. The phone rang in the salon and someone informed the staff that a bomb had gone on in Tel Aviv in the Old Central Bus Station, a scene of many past such occurrences. They turned on the news in Hebrew and went back to cutting hair. I sat quietly and waited until enough news was on and then asked them to fill me in. “Maybe two dead and over 30 wounded at the station.” That was enough. I calmly finished my hair cut and then continued with my shopping before returning home and calling Brent to give him the news. No panic. No racing home. Just another bombing.

To live in a place where I can even think “just another bombing” or “just another attack” is amazing. And to live here and feel such complacency – it is an outrage to my senses. Yet, to live otherwise would make me physically sick and mentally ill. Acceptance, a sense of inevitability, and mindless desensitization is how humans cope with the horrors created around them by other humans. Yet, I still care, but I am so frustrated trusting others who should know better to stop the violence. I think crazy thoughts some times about all of this, including the strange thought that humans, as a species, created this instinct to kill each other out of some weird population control mechanism, like lemmings racing into the sea when their population is out of control. Killing is just instinct, not sense.

The Western (Wailing) Wall continues to attract visitors, though fewer Photo by Lorelle VanFossenBut it is sense when it comes to killing here. It is carefully thought out and planned on both sides. Suicide bombers just don’t freak out and grab some explosives and blow themselves up. They plan, researching and studying spots that can bring the most violence and do the most damage to people. Rarely do they blow up buildings, but specialize in killing people. They practice and train for the event. They video tape themselves proudly displaying their explosives and bragging about what they are about to do. They sneak into the country through extraordinary means to get past the tight security and then coordinate their horror when they can do the most damage and still be in time to get on the evening news world wide. Israel plans and strategies against the Palestinians as to where they can hit with the most force and do the least damage, taking out buildings and not people whenever possible in what they call “tweezer strikes”. There is a long held belief that the only thing Arabs respect is force, so Israel makes big “forceful” moves while the world condemns Israel for out of proportion air strikes against rock throwing peasants and children. Israel has worked hard to protect the Arabs living within its borders, though fear and unease makes it difficult for both sides from time to time. So when an Israeli/Arab strikes from within, old fears rise up, making some believe that all Arabs should not be trusted, even those from within.

Growing up in the United States, I witnessed the rise in random violence. Even today, children are shooting other children not just in their homes or streets but inside of the schools. Drive-by shootings are now fairly common place as gangs take over different parts of a town. The gangsters who survived have grown up to see the uselessness of their actions. Many are now working to change the system, but violence is still an accepted part of everyday life in the United States. Morals and a high value system seems to have eroded throughout the country. Is living with this kind of random violence any different than living with planned and orchestrated violence?

From an American perspective, the same way I grew to accept the outrages of violence against non-hostile people within my own country is the same way I have grown to accept the outrages of violence between hostile people here in Israel. Yet in Israel, people feel free to walk about any time of the day or night without fear of risk of live. They think nothing of letting their teenagers go out after ten at night to meet with friends somewhere. There is no fear of the darkness or of strange places and unknown neighborhoods. Their fears come from a neighboring country, not so much from within. It is so strange to feel this sense of safety to wander around without fear of rape, attack, or death at the hand of a stranger, and yet know that any moment I may be in the right place and right time to be torn apart by a carefully planned suicide bomber. Strange thoughts that come with learning to live under siege.

Tel Aviv, Israel

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