We Can Stop Some of the Bullets

I boarded a bus at Teddy Kollek Stadium in Jerusalem for a trip with fellow North American Jews to visit the Etzion Bloc in the West Bank. The head of security announced that a terrorist had killed two Israeli soldiers earlier that morning at a checkpoint on the road we were about to travel. He assured us that the area was secure and the trip would go ahead as planned, but if anyone felt uncomfortable they were free to switch to another tour.

The woman sitting next to me was in agony. I could see that she was struggling with her emotions and tears ran down her cheeks. She said her daughter hadn’t wanted her to come to Israel at all. The bus pulled out and her seatmate tried to reassure her, but, finally, the fear won out and she asked to be let off the bus. Two other women followed. No one on a second bus full of people got out.

I don’t blame the people who bailed out for a minute. This is the kind of dilemma Israelis live with everyday. Do they send their kids on the bus? Do they go to Ben Yehuda street to shop? Some Israelis also choose caution. But most, like those of us who stayed on the bus, soldier on, determined not to let the terrorists accomplish their goal of scaring us to the point where we cannot live as we choose.

The visit was quite extraordinary. Traveling through tunnels dug to allow Jewish residents in the territories to bypass more dangerous roads where Palestinians frequently attacked them, we reached the area between Jerusalem and Hebron where a thriving group of 15 communities and 20,000 people has emerged from the ashes of the original settlements of Gush Etzion.

It was on January 14, 1947, that an army of more than 1,000 Arabs attacked the settlements. The 450 settlers courageously fought off the onslaught, but needed reinforcements. The Haganah sent 35 soldiers with medical supplies and ammunition, but they were detected by an Arab force. The next day, their stripped, mutilated bodies were found by a British patrol.

On May 14, 1948, as Israel was joining the ranks of independent nations, the Jordanian Legion marched toward Jerusalem. Gush Etzion stood in the way. After evacuating women and children, the residents held off the superior Arab force for three days before surrendering. The Arab army then massacred 240 of the men who had given up, and razed the settlement.

After Israel recaptured the area in 1967, the descendants of the founders of Gush Etzion returned to rebuild their homes. Their dream is that the entire area will become populated so that the communities will ultimately become suburbs of Jerusalem. Though just beyond the Green Line (it is literally visible from the line of trees that separate Jerusalem proper from the West Bank), the consensus in Israel is that these communities must be incorporated within Israel’s final borders, and even Arafat agreed to this in negotiations with Barak.

Besides the historic significance, the area also is strategically important. The Gush today, as it did 55 years ago, protects, the southern approach to Jerusalem. From one vantage point where we stopped, you could see Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. On a clear day, Ashdod is visible. Imagine, standing in a spot where you can look across the width of an entire nation. If every American stood in that spot they would have a greater appreciation of Israel’s vulnerability and realize that secure and defensible borders represent more than a slogan.

The last stop on our tour was a new emergency room in Efrat. It was a small building with maybe four rooms in it, but a vital addition to the community that has endured numerous terrorist attacks in the last three years. In fact, the doctor who spoke to the group said he had taken the call that morning when the soldiers were shot. He rushed to the scene and jumped in the ambulance with one of the men. The injury was so serious the doctor took the unusual step of opening his chest immediately and performing cardiac massage directly to the heart. He knew there was no chance; a bullet had gone through the soldier’s heart.

Coincidentally, a day later I was talking to a 36-year-old bus driver. He said that he had manned the exact same checkpoint where the soldiers were shot just a couple of weeks earlier when he was on reserve duty (think about that for a second: a young man who one day is fighting terrorism and the next is driving tourists around on a bus). I asked why the dead soldier wasn’t wearing a bullet-proof vest and the driver told me that his unit didn’t have any.

We could not protect the soldiers of Gush Etzion in 1948. We can help protect the soldiers of 2003. Pick up your checkbook now and make a donation (one vest costs approximately $1,200) to the American Friends of LIBI to make sure no Israeli soldier has to face terrorists unprotected.