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Afula: wounded heart of Israel

About the author
Leiah Elbaum is a freelance writer from the central Israeli town of Modi’in. Excerpts from her letters are published in Peace Fire: Fragments from the Israel-Palestine Story.

Lag Ba’Omer, Monday 19 May 2003

The fires tonight should be the joyous bonfires of the Lag Ba’Omer holiday, not the melancholy flickering of memorial candles at the scene of yet another terrorist outrage.

That was my thought this morning as we spent an hour stuck at an army roadblock at the entrance to Jerusalem. A mix of Jewish and Arab motorists frustratedly jockeyed between the slow moving lines of vehicles that snaked back from the checkpoint.

Yesterday morning, only an hour or so after the Jerusalem bus bombing, the lines at that very same roadblock had been short, traffic moving through it at a regular pace, the routine checks just part of the regular rhythm of life. Today the soldiers were more vigilant, paying particular attention to drivers who looked like religious Jews, the disguise used by two of the recent suicide bombers.

The sequence of events is familiar. In an effort to move towards peace, Israel eases travel restrictions on Palestinians and allows more of them to return to work in Israel. Terrorists take advantage of the lifting of the closure to infiltrate Israel, and a new wave of terror strikes Israeli cities.

This time, the restrictions were eased just a week ago during the visit of Colin Powell, United States secretary of state, as a gesture to the new Palestinian prime minister, Abu Mazen. The result: over the last forty-eight hours, six suicide bombers have attacked Israeli targets, killing two people in a public square in Hebron, seven on a bus in Jerusalem and three outside a shopping centre in Afula.

Afula, in northern Israel, was the site of this evening’s murderous attack. Fifty were wounded, thirteen seriously. Were it not for the penchant of Palestinian terrorists to attack this remote small town, few foreigners would probably have heard of it. Visitors to Israel have little reason to stop there; at most they pass through on the way to somewhere else.

Its proximity to northern Samaria, just five kilometres from the Palestinian town of Jenin, makes Afula a relatively easy target. It sits right on the main east-west highway from the densely populated coast through the rural Jezreel Valley towards the Jordan River.

Most of my visits to Afula involved getting lost there while driving through. Through these unintended detours, I’ve actually seen quite a lot of the town. It’s a typical provincial Israeli town, with low-rise concrete apartment buildings and new suburbs with pretty little cottages. Its shops, mall and hospital make it a regional service centre.

Before terrorism brought it to the headlines, most Israelis associated the town with two of our national snacks. It’s the roasted sunflower seed capital of Israel and home to a legendary falafel joint where they toss the falafel balls in the air while making up your pitta bread sandwich. Oh, they catch them too. Afula’s other claim to fame is its starring role in an award-winning Israeli movie, Afula Express (1997) , about a pair of ordinary Israelis trying to make the big time.

Viewing Afula from above, it takes on surprising charm. Drive up nearby Mount Gilboa and you’ll see the whole Jezreel Valley spread out before you in the mountain’s shadow. In the middle of the valley sits Afula, picturesque and serene in the golden late afternoon light, nestled amongst the fields, glittering fish ponds and, of course, its famous sunflowers.

Open the bible and you’ll find that Afula rests in the middle of one of the most momentous regions of the country. The fertile earth of the Jezreel Valley made it the country’s breadbasket in ancient times. Today, after centuries of neglect, it is once again an important agricultural centre. It was part of the heartland of the biblical kingdom of northern Israel; for a period the nearby city of Jezreel served as the Israelite capital and was later destroyed by the Assyrians.

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